Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Is Bronydom Feminist?

Apologies for the lack of a PTotD yesterday--I actually wrote one, but instead of queueing it I accidentally saved it as a draft. You can scroll down to see it--sorry about that!

Anyway, I've got feminism on my brain. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Friendship Is Magic is a pretty feminist show. I have tended to assume that bronies are therefore also more inclined than the general populace to feminism, though with the caveat that, thanks to consistent and intentional misportrayal of feminism in mass media, there are a lot of people who believe everything feminists believe but recoil from the label.

That said, I've based the assumption on a combination of the nature of the show, the fact that I haven't personally witnessed or heard about any major incidents, and the general self-image of bronies as being an unusually open, welcoming, and non-judgmental fandom. But that's not really a solid basis: it's perfectly possible for someone to enjoy a feminist show while being a misogynist, if either the feminism or the misogyny is subtle enough; I'm a man, so any misogynistic behavior would not affect me directly and therefore I'd be less likely to notice it; and the self-image of a group is generally not a good predictor of its actual behavior.

So, I'd like to ask the people reading, especially any women reading: Is your experience that bronies are more feminist/less sexist than the general populace? Do you feel that the brony community is a safe and welcoming place for women? If so, why do you think it's so overwhelmingly male?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Translating Titles

One area where I'm rather less impressed with the Japanese dub is the episode titles. Now, it's possible that the Japanese titles have clever puns I'm not seeing, but at least as translated back into English they're pretty lackluster so far:

1: Welcome to Ponyville (English: The Mare in the Moon)
2: Friendship Is Magic (English: The Elements of Harmony)
3: Whose Ticket? (English: The Ticket Master)
4: I Can Do It Myself! (English: Applebucking Season)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Confound These Ponies (Friendship Is Witchcraft)

Dun-dun dun dudun! Dun-dun dun dudun!
April is Fanworks Month, where we take a break from the show for a few weeks and celebrate the creativity of the brony community by examining fanworks with the same seriousness and critical eye as regular episodes. This week is the abridged series Friendship Is Witchcraft by Sherclop Pones.

I talked last week about the fun of watching new genres emerge, and Friendship Is Witchcraft is an example of another young new-media genre. There’s nothing new, of course, about parody dubs. They go back at least to 1966 and What’s Up Tiger Lily, and probably further. Abridged series, as introduced by LittleKuriboh with Yu-Gi-Oh the Abridged Series in 2006, are little more than a refinement on that idea, with the added element of cutting down (or occasionally adding to) the work being parodied. Nonetheless, it has been quite entertaining to watch imitators multiply and diversify.

What abridged series do, in general, is a process of recontextualization. By taking the visuals of the original work and juxtaposing them with new audio, they create a dissonance that can be exploited for humor. This dissonance can occur as a result of seeing familiar characters behave in unfamiliar ways, or it can simply result from imperfections (intentional or otherwise) in the match between the new story and the visuals, or simply telling a funny story using those visuals. Most abridged series focus on the last two for humor, taking their cue from Yu-Gi-Oh the Abridged series, which does not require any knowledge of the original show to enjoy.

Friendship Is Witchcraft, however, relies primarily on the dissonance of seeing beloved characters behave very differently, and as such can be read as a commentary on Friendship Is Magic as much as or more than a standalone work. When Twilight Sparkle takes her friends hostage and forces them to act out her slashfics, or Fluttershy heads an apocalyptic cult, the humor is in part the absurdity of the situation, but it's primarily that the Friendship Is Magic characters would never do anything like that, even though the broad strokes elements of the characters are the same--that is, Twilight Sparkle is still a bossy nerd and Fluttershy is still soft-spoken and self-effacing. The characters, in other words, are not overwritten but recontextualized, just like the images of the show.

The natural question, then, is what does this recontextualization accomplish? What does Friendship Is Witchcraft transform Friendship Is Magic into? Not unsurprisingly, the answer is pretty straightforward: a geeky cartoon comedy with meme depot and cult elements that would be right at home on Adult Swim.

Take, for example, the series' fifth and best episode, "Neigh, Soul Sister," a parody of the second-season Friendship Is Magic episode "Sisterhooves Social." Before it’s even possible to discuss it, we have to cover several elements of continuity from previous episodes: Pinkie Pie is an orphan who dabbled in illegal time-distorting magic in an attempt to bring back her parents. Robots who don’t know they’re robots live among the ponies and will be destroyed if discovered, and Sweetie Belle is one. Rarity and Applejack fought in a war together years prior, as a result of which Rarity is traumatized, Applejack considers her a coward and deserter, and Rarity considers Applejack a war criminal. Finally, as I mentioned previously, Fluttershy leads an apocalyptic cult that worships the Smooze, and Rarity is a member.

The episode itself primarily follows Sweetie-Bot (as the fandom has named her) as the ponies around her repeatedly fail to recognize her true nature despite it being completely obvious. In a broad sense it follows the plot of “Sisterhooves Social,” in that Rarity and Sweetie-Bot fight, Sweetie-Bot latches onto Applejack as her “new sister,” and Rarity takes advantage of a festival celebrating sisterhood to demonstrate that she really does care about Sweetie-Bot.

Alongside this, however, are two running subplots. First, instead of being angry at Sweetie Belle for disrupting her fashion business, Rarity is angry because Sweetie Belle is messing up her preparations to help Fluttershy summon the Smooze during a solar eclipse to usher in the end of the world. Rarity then ditches the eclipse ritual to go to the sisterhood event, because she “wanted to save [Sweetie Belle’s] soul.” Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie’s time-distorting brew in the previous episode is apparently causing parents to return from the dead.

It should be apparent by now that, despite using the actual episode’s visuals, this doesn’t have enough connection to the original show to even qualify as a parody of Friendship Is Magic. At the same time, it is clearly parodic in tone, so what is it parodying?

The answer is actually in the second episode, “Read It and Sleep,” where Twilight Sparkle is depicted as an obsessive fanfic writer who ships Rarity and Applejack. Just as Friendship Is Magic depicts ponies as geeks, usually in a very positive light, Friendship Is Witchcraft parodies geeks, especially bronies. In that light, it becomes clear why it is so much more of a meme depot and cult show, and why it keeps tossing in “dark” and “edgy” elements like making Fluttershy a bunny-burning cult leader or Rarity a traumatized veteran.

Friendship Is Witchcraft, when it boils down to it, is not a parody of Friendship Is Magic; it’s a parody of Friendship Is Magic fans and fanworks. Fluttershy’s apocalyptic cult has nothing to do with her depiction in the show, and everything to do with the fan-character Pinkamena (a psychotic, depressive, murderous version of Pinkie Pie) or the serial-killer Fluttershy in the .MOV series; it mocks these dark versions of the show by making Fluttershy evil without altering her social vulnerability or adorable shyness.

Twilight Sparkle is the main focus of this mockery of fandom and fanworks, with her excruciatingly long, unimaginative fanfic that does nothing but reiterate tired romance-novel clichés with thinly veiled versions of Rarity and Applejack. But it’s the fan tendency to try to read the show as a cult program that gets most viciously (and deliciously) parodied, and nowhere is that done as much as in “Neigh, Soul Sister.”

First, Sweetie-Bot herself is a clear reference to the remake of Battlestar Galactica, a notorious example of a cult show that showcased every flaw in the approach. Much of the plot involved evil robots, the Cylons, infiltrating human society, somehow managing to not be noticed despite being, you know, not made of meat, only having a handful of different physical appearances, and according to the pilot, having spines that are shaped differently from normal humans’ and glow bright red during sex. More to the point, the show blatantly abused the cult approach, clearly having no idea where it was going while emphatically insisting that it was planned out (as fans often put it, referencing a common early tagline, “The Cylons may have a plan, but the writers don’t.”)

As I’ve mentioned before, the inherent problem with a cult show is that it either has to have a pre-planned ending and therefore a fixed expiration date (as with Babylon 5), or else it has to lie to its audience and pretend to a plan where none exists (as with The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica). “Neigh, Soul Sister” plays with this, not only with the recurring robot element (which does not appear again after this episode), but also with Pinkie Pie's spell: Every time it brings someone back from the dead, a counter in the corner of the screen ticks up. The counter displays a maximum of nine, but has not reached it by the end of the episode, suggesting more to come; it also references what appeared to be a throwaway pun in the song that accompanied Pinkie's Spell: "A kitch-en time saves nine."

Like a good cult show, the callback to the pun tells the viewers that there were clues, and if we had caught them and interpreted them properly, we'd know what was happening now--and by extension, what will happen in the future. It's an open invitation to engage in what I referred to as the paranoid viewing style in my article on "Double Rainboom"; Friendship Is Witchcraft is asking us to treat it as a conspiracy, to scour it for clues and hints and try to predict the future. But of course it's not playing fair; despite the ominous build-up Pinkie's revival of the dead has no real pay-off in later episodes. It just causes her parents to come back as the Cake babies in the midst of an episode about something else entirely.

Put another way, where "Double Rainboom" is a version of Friendship Is Magic where Rainbow Dash won the Running of the Leaves and turned the show into a meme depot, Friendship Is Witchcraft is a version where Rainbow Dash won the Running of the Leaves and turned it into a cult show. However, "Double Rainboom" doesn't appear to understand that it's doing something different from Friendship Is Magic, and tries to play it straight. Friendship Is Witchcraft, meanwhile, understands what a terrible idea a cult version of Friendship Is Magic would be, and plays it as ridiculous as possible.

By being an utterly (but hilariously) terrible cult show, Friendship Is Witchcraft turns a parodic spotlight on the fandom itself. As I've mentioned, fandoms tend to be, collectively speaking, kind of terrible at figuring out why they like the target of their fandom. Pony fans seem at times to be absolutely determined to make it a cult show--already, barely two months after Season 3 ended, there are message board threads and YouTube videos speculating about what will happen in Season 4, as if the answer to that question can be found in the events of previous episodes. Friendship Is Magic simply doesn't work that way; it's not a show with complex overarching plots, either on a seasonal level or across seasons. It doesn't seed clues to future episodes in past ones. Simply put, there are no rewards for taking the paranoid approach here--but because that approach has been the norm for geeky television since Buffy (which started, I am horrified to realize, when the average brony was five years old) many of the fans don't know how to watch any other way.

So my advice would be to relax, kick back, and watch some Friendship Is Witchcraft. Laughing at ourselves, and the quirks and excesses of our community, is always healthy. We could probably use some more of it.

Next week: Fanworks month is over! We're back to the show. And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Canterlot to be born?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Translating Puns

I'm impressed with the way the Japanese dub handled a couple of puns in "Applebucking Season." Translating puns is really hard, so I'm glad they pulled off these two:
  • When Pinkie Pie asks for a cup of flour, and Applejack misinterprets that as "cup of sour" and goes for lemons, in the Japanese it relies on the similarity between Japanese words for "flour" and "yellow," so she adds the lemons on the grounds that they're yellow. Fits the visuals, and works perfectly in the context, keeping the spirit of the pun intact without losing the sense of the scene. Well played!
  • Later, the "baked goods"/"baked bads" pun is replaced with a pun based on the similarities between the Japanese words keeki (cake) and keiki (condition), to have Pinkie say something like "We ate the cake, and it gave us this condition." Again, keeps the flow of the scene and the fact that there's a pun there, but puts in something that actually works in Japanese.
I continue to be really impressed with the quality of the Japanese dub.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: *sigh* Equestria Girls...

I guess at this point it's no longer possible to pretend that Equestria Girls is a baseless fan rumor or something the Powers That Pony will change their minds about, seeing as it's getting a limited theatrical release this summer. And it has Daniel Ingram doing songs, so at least that'll be good...


A absolute butchery of something I love that's got good songs. This is Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame all over again...

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Pony Games

I'll be doing another Fanworks Month in about six months, and it occurs to me that one area I don't cover at all this month is games. Mostly because I don't know anything about them--are there any good, finished pony video games? Card games? Tabletop games? I am in a position of vast ignorance here, so I turn to you: any recommendations?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: BESM Weather Control

Here's another new BESM attribute for my pony game. The ability to use weather to attack hasn't shown up much in the show, but seems logical, is crucial to Turnabout Storm, and made possible one of Rainbow Dash's best moments in the big crossover game I ran at Anime USA (specifically, it's how she beat LadyDevimon). So I tossed it in.

Weather Control (3/level): You have the ability to physically manipulate clouds and winds. Unlike Environmental Control, which is supernatural or technological, this requires you to physically move air and clouds, and therefore requires your full attention. However, again unlike Environmental Control, it can be used to attack with wind, rain, snow, or lightning. (Treat the attack as a Weapon Attack of one level lower than the pony's level of Weather Control).
  • Level 1: You can stand and walk on clouds as if they are ground.
  • Level 2: You can move individual clouds to create precipitation, lightning, or sunshine over a small area (5-meter radius). You can only create temperature-appropriate effects (that is, you cannot make it snow on a hot day). You can also create gentle breezes.
  • Level 3: You can move multiple clouds in a round to control the weather in a larger area (30-meter radius). You can still only create temperature-appropriate effects, and create stronger gusts of wind.
  • Level 4: You can control weather in a 100-meter radius, create temperature inappropriate effects (such as snow in summer), and create gale-force winds.
  • Level 5: You can control weather in a 200-meter radius, including temperature-inappropriate effects, and create winds strong enough to knock ponies over (Body check to prevent).
  • Level 6: You can clear the sky over an entire town in ten seconds flat, or otherwise control the weather for a town-sized area, and create tornado-strength winds.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: More Thoughts on Toys

Still looking at my Lyra fig, and thinking about how little it looks like an actual Friendship Is Magic character from the front, it occurs to me: Are the characters even physically possible? I don't mean as living things or anything like that; I mean as three-dimensional shapes. I'm not an artist, and I'm kind of awful at spatial reasoning, but it seems to me like the face-on views in the show are not compatible with the profile views--there's no possible head shape for a toy that would accurately capture both angles.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Toys and Idols

I'm sitting staring at my Lyra, trying to figure out today's Pony Thought of the Day, and so I find myself thinking about why the toy is where it is.

Lyra lives on my desk, between my monitors, and it is under her watchful, judgmental gaze that I do my work. Having her watch me makes me less distractable, or at least I think it does, and that amounts to the same thing in the end.

In this sense she functions very much like one use of an idol or household god. I think sometimes part of the price we pay for having monotheistic religions dominate in our culture is that we've lost this notion of making your own watchers, rituals, and superstitions, but play can sometimes restore this loss.

Which isn't to say that I think Lyra is somehow real or that some sort of divine energy inhabits the little lump of green plastic on my desk or anything like that. It's entirely something I've constructed; Lyra's "watchful gaze" exists only in my imagination. Her effect on my productivity is pure placebo.

But so what?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Welcome to the Herd (Friendship Is Dragons)

April is Fanworks Month, where we take a break from the show for a few weeks and celebrate the creativity of the brony community by examining fanworks with the same seriousness and critical eye as regular episodes. This week is the webcomic Friendship Is Dragons by Newbiespud.

Twilight Sparkle is totally min-maxing.
It’s every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for the past year and a half, so forgive me if I don’t try to list the news and so forth for that entire period.

One of the great pleasures of living at the dawn of a new medium is watching new genres form with far greater rapidity than is usually the case. Probably the last time this was possible was a century ago, when first film and then radio emerged and discovered new storytelling possibilities. (Television doesn’t count. As a rule it just applied or occasionally combined the genres already established by film and radio.

It’s fascinating to watch when some novel new way to use the Internet to tell stories catches on. Imitators crop up, doing the same thing but with a twist, until there are enough of them to be considered a genre. The shared elements between these imitators (most, but not all, of which are usually traceable to the original work) become the defining traits of the genre. Then as some of the imitators become popular, imitators-of-imitators pile twists on top of twists, and slowly subgenres begin to differentiate themselves.

The process isn’t always so clean, of course. Often multiple sources end up, independently, doing something just similar enough that their imitators blend into a single genre. Even so, we can regard the process of genre formation as arising from the imitation of elements of a source work, which is another way of saying that genres grow from fanfiction.

Not, generally, in the literal sense. None of the explosion of Tolkienesque heroic fantasy novels that appeared in the latter half of the twentieth century are Tolkien fanfiction in the sense of being set in Middle-Earth or starring Tolkien’s characters. However, they share with fanfiction that their authors found something appealing in Tolkien, and set out to do their own version of it.

So it was with Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings, a webcomic assembled by combing through Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies for screenshots and putting funny speech bubbles in the characters’ mouths. Nothing particularly new or fresh there--screencap comics date back at least to the 1960s. What Young added, however, was a fresh new central premise: His comic was not a straightforward retelling or even parody of The Lord of the Rings, but a reimagining. What if The Lord of the Rings never existed as a book or movie series, and instead were the creation of a group of tabletop fantasy roleplayers?

The result is a very funny comic that refreshes the (by now rather tired) story of The Lord of the Rings by putting in a new level of drama. Instead of being the story of a group of adventurers struggling against the tyranny of a vast evil, it becomes the story of a group of players struggling against the tyranny of an overbearing game master, who is desperately trying to engage them with a boring and over-linear story about a group of adventurers struggling against the tyranny of a vast evil.

Its first imitator, Darths and Droids, takes the conceit to a new level. In this setting, it is Star Wars, not The Lord of the Rings, that never existed and is instead created by a group of gamers, and rather than one campaign we have six in sequence with time-skips between them (currently the comic is nearing the end of the fourth, which uses screencaps from the original Star Wars movie). Notably, in Darths and Droids the players are engaged to a far greater degree, and rather than a tyrant, the game master is at times a pushover. This allows more exploration of the interaction between the two layers of story, the reimagining of Star Wars on one level and the lives and antics of the players on another. Along with the fact that the players sometimes change their characters (indeed, given that a major character dies in almost every Star Wars movie, guessing who the doomed character’s player will be in the next movie is something of a game among the comic’s readers), this allows the players to develop strong personalities of their own distinct from their characters. Where DM of the Rings explicitly parallels the drama around the table with the drama within the game, Darths and Droids takes a more complex approach. In the former the game master and players are parallels to Sauron and the Fellowship, so the defeat of Sauron allows the players to escape the DM’s tyranny as well; in the latter, the relationship between Annie and Jim influences and is influenced by the relationship between Anakin and Padme, but the more-or-less positive resolution of the former enables the latter to end in tragedy.

As a general rule, campaign comics (as the genre is usually called) imitate Darths and Droids more than DM of the Rings, in that the focus is as much or more on the players (whose dialogue comes out of the mouths of their characters, with no clear markers to distinguish it from in-character dialogue) as on the characters and story within the game, even while the images of the comic depict always and only the game.

Friendship Is Dragons is no different, and at least initially appears to be a bog-standard application of the genres’ tropes to Friendship Is Magic. However, as it unfolds it manages to expertly accomplish what neither “Double Rainboom” nor Time Lords and Terror ultimately did, which is to use its position as an instance of both Friendship Is Magic and Something Else to comment intelligently on both.

Reflecting the episodic nature of Friendship Is Magic, each of the three complete arcs of Friendship Is Dragons corresponds both to a single play session and a story from the first season of the show. Occasionally an image is pulled from a different episode or even a different season, but the overwhelming majority of the images for each arc are pulled strictly from the associated story. The episode sequence is not adhered to, however; the first arc does correspond to “Mare in the Moon”/“The Elements of Harmony,” but the second is “Dragonshy” and the third is “Bridle Gossip.” The fourth and current arc then breaks with this structure, but more on that later.

Unlike most campaign comics, which either avoid mentioning specific elements of gameplay or intentionally blend gameplay from multiple systems, the characters of Friendship Is Dragons are explicitly playing Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition. This is appropriate in a variety of ways, not least because of the obvious implication that the three previous generations of pony cartoon could have corresponded to the three previous editions of D&D (right down to there being a 3.5 edition). Admittedly, the players don’t seem to be aware of any prior pony games, but then the players (the DM included) come across as being quite young, and so it’s entirely possible that they had predecessors of which they are unaware.

The fact that they’re playing a specific, commercial game is also apropos, given that Friendship Is Magic originated as a marketing strategy--doubly so, since that Hasbro owns both My Little Pony and D&D. There’s a deeper resonance, too, in that Friendship Is Magic has managed, despite being a commercial product, to serve as a seed around which strong communities of young people organize themselves. This is a pretty good description of roleplaying games as a phenomenon, too.

The final, and perhaps most important, level of resonance here lies in the origin and nature of roleplaying games in general, and D&D in specific. The original D&D has three clear antecedents, two of which are readily recognized by gamers: tabletop war games (of which Warhammer 40K is probably the best known modern instance) and Tolkienesque fantasy. In this view, D&D can be seen as an attempt to adapt mechanics from tabletop war games to allow players to take up the roles of individual adventurers on a fantasy quest.

However, this origin story misses both a major antecedent of D&D and one of its major functions, one important enough that it named the genre: roleplaying. Prior to the introduction of D&D (and to this day among non-geeks), the word “roleplaying” refers to something very different: a technique in psychological therapy where patients take on the roles of other people and act out how they believe they would behave in a particular scenario. The “play” in “roleplay” refers not to a game but to acting, a sort of improvisational theater designed to help people learn to better relate to others.

Roleplaying games, in other words, partially originate from a tool designed to teach friendship lessons. It should come as no surprise, then, that much of the story of Friendship Is Dragons involves the characters, especially the DM, learning to relate to one another through the medium of the game.

The first arc plays out extremely similarly to the episode it’s based on, primarily serving to introduce the players and their characters, who all resemble the Mane Six without quite being them. Notably, the players themselves have no names, and other than being referred to as “she” by other players from time to time, are characterized entirely by implication. Where the players of Darths and Droids regularly talk about their personal lives at the table (so that, for instance, we know quite a bit about Ben’s troubled relationship with his father), the Friendship Is Dragons players are more recalcitrant, and therefore a little more anonymous. At the same time, we come to understand them and the interrelationships between them fairly well through their play styles. The title of Friendship Is Dragons is literal: the friendship of the characters is defined by their game.

Twilight Sparkle is a new player who has fairly extensive knowledge of the rules (and of the clichés and tropes of genre fiction) but no ability to apply them to actual games or experience of the culture of gaming. Applejack, by contrast, is an experienced gamer who seems to prefer to stand slightly outside the action, commenting on the goings-on while rarely actively participating. Rainbow Dash, probably the funniest character in the strip, is a proponent of the kick-in-the-door style of play, endlessly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to massacre monsters and loot their corpses. Rarity, in a brilliant twist on her complex and dual nature in the show, seems primarily motivated by opportunities to play a character, in her case a grasping, greedy rogue pretending to be an upstanding citizen and fashion designer. Fluttershy is another new player, who seems to be both shy by nature and intimidated by her lack of familiarity with the game. Finally, Pinkie Pie is essentially the same character as in the show, and an archetype familiar to most players of tabletop games: the player who takes the unreality of the world and lack of meaningful consequences as license to play a completely ludicrous character.

The climax of the first arc is where things start getting really clever. As I’ve mentioned in a few of my essays on the first season, the show implied by the Friendship Is Magic premiere is not the show that we actually got. Friendship Is Dragons plays with this by making the conclusion of the arc largely an accident. The DM’s plan had been that, following their crushing defeat in the ruined castle by Nightmare Moon, the players would have traveled Equestria for many game sessions, questing for the essences of the destroyed Elements of Harmony, before finally returning to confront Nightmare Moon and defeat her using them.

Unfortunately for the DM, Twilight Sparkle completely derails these plans by (extremely persuasively) explaining how each of her companions maps to one of the Elements of Harmony and then, out of the blue, correctly guessing that the missing sixth element is magic and therefore maps to her. Much as Hasbro’s insistence on a more episodic, slice-of-life show both derailed the initial plans and, after an extended adjustment period, ultimately resulted in much stronger television, this derailment of the DM’s campaign initially leaves them unable to adjust and threatening to end the campaign. At the insistence of the other players, however, the DM agrees to try to continue the game.

The result is the second arc, based on “Dragonshy.” Again this is an inspired choice, as “Dragonshy” is pretty clearly one of the few remaining remnants of the original conception of the show. Its “ponies do Buffy” approach fits neatly into the magical girl genre that contains both the show implied by the Friendship Is Magic premier and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the players in the Friendship Is Dragons version point out several other similarities, most notably the similarity of “a hundred years of blackened skies” to “a thousand years of night.” In the comic, in other words, the DM is recycling elements of his abandoned plans, just as the original “Dragonshy” recycled elements of the abandoned show premise.

Also like “Dragonshy,” despite ostensibly being an ensemble piece, the second arc is Fluttershy’s story. The lesson she learns is an interesting variation on the episode; where in the original she learns that she possesses inner strengths that are valuable, in the comic she learns the power of masks. This is one of the great strengths of roleplaying: by pretending to be someone else, and acting out the strengths of that other person, it is possible to discover previously untapped strength in oneself. Fluttershy’s stats indicate that she is capable of being very intimidating when she chooses to be, and by playing it out the player is able to discover she can, too.

The third arc is probably the weakest of the comic’s run thus far, unsurprising given that it’s based on one of the weakest episodes of the first season, “Bridle Gossip.” It plays with both the clichéd “racism is bad” plot of the episode and Zecora’s shallow, tokenistic characterization by making it all a shell game on the part of the DM: they know some of the players will recognize the clichéd plot, while others will assume the rumors about Zecora are true, and relies on that to artificially create conflict within the party. Zecora, meanwhile, turns out to be a different cliché entirely, the obsessed and unscrupulous mad scientist, whose rhyming speech is a cruel curse imposed by mocking magical plantlife.

It’s a fairly clever twist on the episode, but unfortunately the arc bogs down badly in interminable arguments between the players over whether or not Zecora is “evil.” This is somewhat the point, to teach the DM a lesson about manipulating and deceiving the players, but the reader suffers from it nearly as much as the DM.

The fourth and current arc is the most interesting thus far. It starts out rather similar to previous arcs, more-or-less following the plot of “Swarm of the Century,” but with the players immediately recognizing the danger posed by the parasprites. It then takes a turn for the weird when Twilight Sparkle again derails the plot by killing all the parasprites in a single round, forcing the DM to improvise the rest of the session. This is another brilliant reference to the role of the original episode in the development of the show, as “Swarm of the Century” forced a period of intense experimentation that required a complete alchemical transformation to resolve, and to some extent wasn’t fully resolved until a few episodes into the second season.

In the comic, the resulting arc turns from interrogating Friendship Is Magic to interrogating the structure of the campaign comic by violating one of the fundamental generic conventions originated by DM of the Rings. Namely, just as DM of the Rings follows the overall plot and structure of The Lord of the Rings, most campaign comics follow the structure of the work they’re taking screencaps from. They may skip scenes or episodes, or (as Darths and Droids does) insert footage from deleted scenes or DVD extras, but so far as I know Friendship Is Dragons is unique in the approach it’s taking in its current arc of blending together episodes.

Specifically, after the aborted “Swarm of the Century” story, the arc continues with a hybrid of elements from both “A Bird in the Hoof” and “Dog and Pony Show,” with some reason to believe (though it has not occurred at the time of writing this essay) that “Fall Weather Friends” will be included as well. This works on one level as a solution to the problem of what to do about the relative paucity of Friendship Is Magic episodes that involve all of the Mane Six. More importantly, it also throws the reader out of the usual comfort zone of campaign comics.

One of the common elements of campaign comics, going back to DM of the Rings, is that the reader is generally assumed to be familiar with the original work and therefore to have an idea of where the story is going. To use the example of Darths and Droids, while the reader may not know the details of how any particular scene is going to play out, they do know that the A New Hope arc will start on Tatooine, continue to the Death Star and meeting Princess Leia, and conclude with the trench run and destruction of the Death Star. This is why Darths and Droids’ innovation of having the player- and game-level stories influence, rather than mirror, one another was important, because it allows the existence of a storyline that isn’t entirely predictable.

Friendship Is Dragons’ current arc takes that a step further. We no longer have any idea how the current game session will go, because we’re in uncharted territory. We know that elements of “Bird in the Hoof” and “Dog and Pony Show” are in play, but because they are mixed we have no idea which elements will appear, or if they will appear in the same order as in the episode, or whether they will continue as separate threads or influence one another.

In short, rather like Friendship Is Magic, Friendship Is Dragons has found a way to transcend the limitations of its genre and try something new, while still remaining true to both its generic roots and the original works from which it’s derived. It’s an impressive piece of work, and deserves far more attention than it has received.

Next week: Fanworks Month draws to its conclusion with evil cultists, secret robots, and incredibly catchy songs.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Inauspicious Beginnings

Man, the first episode of Friendship Is Witchcraft really wasn't that great. It's a good thing it got better as it went.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Repeat Cutie Marks

There's a few cutie marks that show up repeatedly on background ponies, and sometimes I like to speculate on what they might mean about the pony who has them. Here's a few.
  • Carrot: Excellent eyesight, proficiency at bad prop comedy.
  • Fleur de Lis: Snooty superiority, bad spelling, and frankly overrated cooking abilities, but a real knack for breakfast pastries.
  • Compass Rose: Unerring sense of direction, tendency to declare anywhere they don't feel like going to be full of dragons.
  • Hourglass: Time Lord, natch.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Poison Joke and the CMC

Was reading through the Friendship Is Dragons archive for dark and terrible reasons that will become clear Sunday, and one of the commenters asked an interesting question: What would happen to the CMC if they stumbled on poison joke?

Here's my guesses:

Scootaloo's legs vanish/stop working, and she has to fly everywhere.

Sweetie Bell becomes invisible and inaudible to everyone except Rarity.

Apple Bloom gets Niven's "Keller eyes" power, a.k.a. the ability of Doctor Who's Silence: Anypony not currently looking at her forgets she ever existed.

...Wow, poison joke is horrifying.

Anyway, what do you think?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: BESM Blank Flanks

Since I posted the BESM Cutie Mark attribute I made, here's the Blank Flank attribute.

Blank Flank (4/level): You have not yet discovered your special talent. All ponies with this attribute must take Marked -1 (Blank Flank) and Ageism -1 to represent that ponies regard acquiring a cutie mark as a rite of passage. At some point during the game, the GM identifies your special talent, but does not tell the player (it is recommended for the GM to wait at least a couple of sessions, in order to get to know the character and identify an appropriate talent). At this point, the GM begins applying the talent to rolls as appropriate (see the Cutie Mark attribute), again without telling the player. If the player guesses the talent (or something suitably close to have received the same bonuses), then after a successful roll that receives the Blank Flank bonus, the attribute is removed and replaced by the Cutie Mark attribute. For each level of Blank Flank the character possesses, the player receives 4 points; the first two must be spent to remove the Marked (Blank Flank) and Ageism defects, and all others must be spent on the Cutie Mark attribute. Any leftover points can be combined with future character advancement points, but only for purposes of increasing the level of the Cutie Mark attribute.

Example: Sweetie Bell possesses Blank Flank at level 1, along with Marked (Blank Flank) -1 and Ageism -1. After a couple of sessions, the GM identifies singing as her special talent. A few sessions later, after succeeding with a bad roll on a difficult Performing Arts (Singing) skill check, the player correctly identifies Sweetie's special talent as singing. She gains a cutie mark (the player chooses a microphone, and the GM agrees) and 4 character points. The first two must be spent to remove her Marked and Ageism defects, and the remaining two on the Cutie Mark attribute. Since Cutie Mark (Singing) has only narrow, non-combat applications, it is only 1 point per level, so Sweetie Bell's player replaces Blank Flank 1 with Cutie Mark (Singing) 2.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Sutiven Magunetto

Finally saw the second episode of Tomodachi wa Mahou, and wow. I thought the voice casting on the Mane Six was good, but Steven Magnet? One-hundred percent absolutely perfect. The voice director is clearly not only paying close attention to the English voices, but actually playing them for the Japanese actors. There's no other explanation for how closely he matches the tone.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Last Survivor of Gallopfrey (Time Lords and Terror)

April is Fanworks Month, where we take a break from the show for a few weeks and celebrate the creativity of the brony community by examining fanworks with the same seriousness and critical eye as regular episodes. This week is the crossover fanfiction Time Lords and Terror by Hephestus.

You were expecting somepony else?
It’s November 23, 1963 and June 6, 1986 and March 26, 2005 and October 10, 2010, and a children’s show is beginning that will eventually have a strong adult following as a massive geek hit.

Mostly, though, it’s somewhere around April 2011 (finding the precise date at which a fanfic posted turns out to be surprisingly difficult), so if you really want to know what’s going on in the world, read the Season 1 posts from “A Bird in the Hoof” on.

For starters, we have to address something important: This story is, from an objective, technical standpoint, not very good. It’s amateur work made by an amateur, as fanfiction almost always is (Neil Gaiman being the obvious exception). There are frequent punctuation errors, especially comma splices. The diction is extremely uneven: some scenes feel like the author was consulting a thesaurus throughout, especially in the early chapters, while others use the much plainer and simpler language with which the author is clearly more comfortable. The characterization is extremely basic, and the plot makes heavy use of lucky coincidences and deus ex machina resolutions.

None of which matters, because this is a story that reimagines the villains of 1986’s My Little Pony: The Movie to fit them into the Doctor Who canon, and then has the Doctor team up with the modern-day Mane Six to fight them. Any remotely readable story with a premise that glorious would be enjoyable, and this story manages to be more than remotely readable and therefore immense fun.

There is a feeling of inevitability to crossing over Friendship Is Magic and Doctor Who. Not just because both series are popular among a pretty similar group of people, or because there was a background pony with an hourglass cutie mark who vaguely resembled a pony version of the Tenth Doctor. There’s a host of reasons why this crossover had to happen sooner rather than later.

The most superficial is the mirror nature of the shows’ default plots. After “everypony in this town is crazy,” the second-most-common premise for a Friendship Is Magic story is that some alien element enters Ponyville (or, if it’s a season premiere or finale, Equestria), accounting for 23 of the 61 stories in the first three seasons. The go-to standard plot for Doctor Who, meanwhile, is that the Doctor arrives in some place or time and serves as an alien element that stirs things up.

A more important reason requires explaining Doctor Who a bit. The Doctor generally arrives via TARDIS, a magical blue box that is also a machine, the point at which Clarke’s Law and alchemy collide into something that doesn’t so much travel through time and space as smash its way from genre to genre. Doctor Who can be (to use the three most recent episodes at the time of writing this essay) a Victorian horror story about possessed snow in one story, a modern-day techno-thriller about people being forcibly uploaded to the Internet the next story, and a fantasy-space adventure about balancing the importance of story and memory with the need to defy authoritarian belief systems that feed on those stories in the third story. What makes them recognizable as Doctor Who stories is the presence of four key elements (and a hat tip to the ever-brilliant Philip Sandifer for laying these out in his article on “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”). First is the TARDIS, the liminal space that bridges the familiar and the strange, a sort of cross between Platform 9 ¾ and the Enterprise, able to change which Faerie it links to every story. Second are the monsters, the reification of the strangeness the TARDIS brings, sometimes terrifying, sometimes benign, and always alien and weird. Third is the Doctor himself, the ancient wizard-scientist (alchemist, in other words) who jumps from story to story so he can play with the monsters. The Doctor is a mercurial figure, always transformative and transforming, not just in his famed regenerations when he changes face and personality, but in his ability to swing between moods and moral statuses mid-scene and even mid-line. Part trickster god who destroys systems he finds unworthy, part wandering adventurer, part eccentric Victorian inventor, and part bum, he is the cosmic hobo and the hobo cosmic. Last but not least are the companions, who serve as a restraint on the Doctor. He loves them, wants to protect them and have them think well of him, so they are able to hold him back when he goes too far and spur him to action when he’s fooling around too much.

The TARDIS goes where the Doctor is needed, not where he wants, so of course it lands in Equestria. Not so the Doctor can save everypony from the villains; the story establishes from the start that the only reason the witches land in Equestria is the appearance of the TARDIS, not the first time it’s been suggested that the Doctor brings the monsters. No, he’s not here because Equestria needs him; he’s here because, with Season One drawing to a close, Friendship Is Magic needs him. The series has increasingly found itself trapped in the constraints it laid down for itself, and it needs to break free. It needs a force of chaos, a harbinger of change, a mercurial being who tears down oppressive systems and then wanders away, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

All season, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, there has been a recurring theme of change and transformation.  It’s employed some powerful symbols of that concept: the Eclipse, the Dawn, the Phoenix. Our culture has no shortage of symbols of the power of change to tear down old orders that seem unbreakable--it's one of the functions of the Cross, among other symbols. But for me, the single greatest symbol of global transformation, the breaking of the world that lets a new world grow in its ruins, is the Police Box, and the odd man who lives inside.

To make a long story short, the series has increasingly found itself trapped in the constraints it laid down for itself, and it needs to break free. It needs a force of chaos, a harbinger of change, a mercurial being who tears down oppressive systems and then wanders away, leaving others to pick up the pieces--and of the two such beings in long-running English-language TV science fiction franchises, the Doctor is by far the more benevolent.

But what, precisely, does it need him to do? As I mentioned in discussing “Double Rainboom,” crossovers are generally at their best when using one set of source material to comment on the other. The best crossovers use both to comment on both simultaneously, and that very nearly happens here in perhaps the greatest moment of the story, the moment at which two unstoppable forces of generally benevolent chaos collide, and Pinkie Pie meets the Doctor.

Now, Pinkie Pie is not the main companion here. There’s a clear hierarchy to the characters, which I suspect but cannot confirm has to do with how much the author likes them. Twilight is clearly the companion who gets closest to the Doctor, and the one who resolves the plot in the end. Rainbow Dash and, weirdly, Applejack and Zecora form the next tier; they do not have the rapport with the Doctor that Twilight does, but they do get to be very useful. Finally, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie have almost no impact on the plot and appear to be there just to fill out the “Doctor meets the Mane Six” requirement, with Rarity not even showing up until the third act.

Despite this, the two characters who get the best scenes with the Doctor are Pinkie and, to a lesser extent, Fluttershy. Pinkie meets the Doctor once before the team-up really gets rolling, and it’s delicious. First, the Doctor (who is definitely Ten here, despite an error at one point that implies he’s already regenerated ten times and is therefore Eleven) employs one of his typical character tics and asks a question to which he is the only person present who could possibly know the answer (“How many species use Z-Neutrino weapons?”) Pinkie immediately and correctly guesses the answer, throwing the normally unflappable and somewhat smug Tennant Doctor off his stride. Even better is what happens after the Doctor invites the Mane Six into the TARDIS: while everyone else goes through the usual “flabbergasted at it being bigger on the inside” set piece, Pinkie vanishes into the depths of the TARDIS, eventually finding the pool and library (they’re the same room), where she reads the TARDIS instruction manual.

Keep in mind that the Doctor has never been very good at flying the TARDIS, right back to the beginning of the show. He is surprised, in this story, that it even has an instruction manual, which means Pinkie, after no more than a few minutes in the TARDIS, knows more about it than the Doctor does.

Which, once stated, is obvious. Pinkie Pie is constantly dancing on the edge of the story in Friendship Is Magic, able to interact with the medium, hang off the top of the frame, or import knowledge from outside the story. The TARDIS, meanwhile, is a device for smashing the Doctor and his companions from story to story, while its interior occupies a stable "other dimension"--in other words, the inside of the TARDIS is outside any story, beyond the fourth wall. Of course Pinkie Pie has an affinity for it, of course she understands it immediately on entering it! And of course she unsettles the Doctor by doing so; he has repeatedly been shown to have quite an ego, especially the Tenth Doctor (though Three and Six could be quite self-aggrandizing, too), and the notion of not being the most potent force of genre-bending chaos in the room is extremely disconcerting for him.

The other truly great scene, for me, is the Doctor’s first meeting with Fluttershy. At the time I read this story, I knew Fluttershy was my favorite pony, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Then the Doctor, after knowing her for only a few moments, realizes what neither she nor her friends does, that Fluttershy’s greatest strength and greatest weakness are the same thing, her hypervigilant monitoring of the behavior and attitudes of others. That scene, rather than one actually in the show, is the point at which I realized that Fluttershy has Avoidant Personality Disorder, and thus serves as the basis for my article on “Stare Master.”

As I said, other than those two scenes, the main draw of this story is its villains,taken from My Little Pony: The Movie, but with the plot of that movie entirely discarded. Past and present collide, as they tend to do when Time Lords are around, but not in a literal sense; this story does not try to imply that Friendship Is Magic shares continuity with the original My Little Pony. Instead, it presents us with characters close enough to the villains of that movie to be recognizable as versions of them, but at the same time very much Doctor Who villains. By making Hydia, Draggle, and Reeka into a coven of Carrionites, the story not only makes them much more effective and frightening than they ever were in My Little Pony, but goes a long way toward redeeming the Carrionites as a part of Doctor Who lore that’s never quite fit in.

Once the witches are fixed as a part of Doctor Who that sneaks into Equestria, the transformation of the Smooze into the Lovecraftian S’Müz is as inevitable as it is brilliant, as it transforms him into an occult foil for both the Doctor and the Mane Six. Most of the Doctor’s iconic villains are foils--that is, characters that share some of his traits while being his opposite in other ways. The Master is an immortal time-traveling genius, but seeks to dominate rather than engage and enjoy. The Daleks destabilize any narrative they enter and reshape it with themselves at the center, but are violent fascistic mass-murderers. The S’Müz, meanwhile, is a foil to both the Gnostic elements of the Doctor and the Qabbalistic elements of the Mane Six.

Gnosticism is an early Christian heresy, likely predating both the canonical Gospels and the (little-o) orthodox form of Christianity from which all of the modern (big-O) Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects descend. Gnosticism, to oversimplify to the point of absurdity, holds that the material world is the accidental creation of an emanation of God named Sophia, and now lies in the tyrannical grip of a mad, evil entity that thinks it’s God, called Ialdabaoth. Sophia is trapped within the world she created, and the souls of humanity are her essence, sealed away in our bodies. Sophia’s male counterpart/other half, Christ (who is here explicitly not the same being as the human Jesus) entered the world to spread knowledge, bring enlightenment, free the trapped souls, and eventually destroy the prison that is material existence. Christ appeared to die, but a divine being can’t; Jesus (who was a normal, albeit enlightened, human who acted as a sort of conduit for Christ) died in his place.

Qabbalah is a very complex mystical tradition with many variations, including the original Jewish version, the medieval European version that influenced alchemy, and multiple descendents and variations thereof, but for our purposes (and again to elide and oversimplify to the point of absurdity) the important part is that, as in Gnosticism, something went wrong at the beginning of time. The material universe is not itself a mistake, but the divine light that was supposed to fill it was shattered and scattered, resulting in human souls. Certain special sparks among us have the power to ignite the light of human souls, not to destroy the material world but to remove the corruption from it and transform it into something better, the originally planned perfection something created by a divine being ought to have. There’s also these things called sephiroth which would at least quadruple the length of the essay if I explained them, so for our purposes we’ll just say they represent stages on the path to enlightenment, and in some traditions have dark mirrors called the qlippoth, which represent various ways to fail to reach enlightenment.

The Mane Six are pretty easy to read in a Qabbalistic way thanks to the Elements of Harmony. They possess inner light, sparks which can ignite to restore things to their proper, uncorrupted form, as they do when they transform Nightmare Moon to Luna. In the context of “Time Lords and Terror,” this light is identified as psychokinetic energy, and works more or less like mana or the Force. The Doctor, meanwhile, is very much a Gnostic figure. He is a nonhuman and superhuman savior from outside who is frequently mistaken for a human, appears to die without actually dying, possesses great wisdom and knowledge, brings enlightenment to those who listen, overthrows tyrants and destroys systems he finds unworthy (for the best example of this side of him in action, I recommend the tragically underrated Seventh Doctor story “The Happiness Patrol”).

The S’Müz is a foil to both, balanced between a dark read of the Gnostic Christ and a manifestation of the qlippoth. Like the qlippoth, he is a manifestation of the primordial chaos and darkness, seeking to recover the Light taken from it at the creation of the universe. Also like the qlippoth he can be taken as a dark alternate read of an ostensibly good thing. The relationship between the Lovecraftian and the Gnostic is analogous to that between the qlippoth and the sephiroth: knowledge that brings madness/enlightenment, beings that destroy physical consensus reality without malice, the universe in the tyrannical grip of a vast, mad idiot, even the notion of an ancient alien being sealed or sleeping within the world are all found in both. If you happen to like physical existence, the Gnostic Christ is a terrifying monster that can look like a human but wants to tear out your soul and destroy the universe, not really very different from Nyarlathotep.

The S’Müz as dark reflection of the Doctor works on more than just the mythical level, though. The ponies respond to them in not dissimilar ways: both are immediately obviously alien and unsettling, as when Twilight is disturbed by how ancient the Doctor’s eyes look, or when all the ponies feel frightened and nauseated by the mere sound of the S’Müz’s voice.  They instinctively feel that the Doctor is trustworthy and want to impress him, and just as instinctively fear and hate the S’Müz.

This mirroring of the two makes it fitting that one of the S’Müz’s first acts on arriving in Equestria is to absorb the Doctor, revealing yet another parallel. Removing the Doctor so abruptly from the narrative makes it clear just how much he has absorbed and replaced Equestria with his own mode of being. The Doctor’s usual function is to crash into some other genre of story and make it his own, and this story is no different. The Mane Six fall into companion roles swiftly, the villains are recast from their My Little Pony origins to become Whovian entities, and the general tone of more-or-less kid-friendly horror is a typical Doctor Who register. Even the main villain, for all that he works on an occult or mythic level as a foil for the ponies, only works as a personal foil for the Doctor.

In short, even though it’s the Doctor who crosses dimensional boundaries to enter Equestria, the end result is that the Mane Six find themselves in a Doctor Who episode. The only way to get any element of Friendship Is Magic back into the narrative is to remove the Doctor so that Twilight can be the hero instead, and even then the solution she finds is a typically Doctor-y combination of the sonic screwdriver and technobabble (including, in the most jarringly out-of-place gag in the story, an Insane Clown Posse reference).

Sandifer posited in his article on "The Reign of Terror" that the disappointing episodes of Doctor Who, the ones ripe with potential that never quite clicks, are a large part of why the series could potentially continue forever. If so, then the same is true of fanfiction: the compellingly awkward works, the ones whose reach exceed their grasp, are often the ones that stay with the reader. We remember the potential and the brilliant bits, while the awkward prose and shaky characterization fade. More to the point, we remember the almosts and might-have-beens, things the story almost but not quite managed to do, and take joy as much from them as from the things that worked.

Case in point, this story has a sequel, “The Mines of Dragon Mountain,” which is noticeably better in terms of characterization and writing quality, and better about balancing the Doctor Who and My Little Pony elements of the tone and plot. At the same time, there’s simply nothing in it as glorious as an alien starship commander commanding his crew to engage in a heroic, last-ditch sacrifice to save the multiverse with the words “Let it be known… that the Hervoken race stopped the S’Müz!”

Next week: More genre collision, this time with the intrusion of ponies into a genre still in its infancy. No, not the one you're thinking of. This one has more dice, fewer robots, and updates much more often.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Japanese MLP Evaporating

Is it just me, or is Hasbro being MUCH more aggressive about getting Japanese MLP episodes pulled off YouTube than English episodes?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Cutie Marks in BESM

At the request of some folks in the DC Brony Society, I've been working on an MLP campaign in the out-of-print anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouths (Second Edition, a.k.a. "the good one"). I've worked up a few new attributes, and here's the first and most obvious, Cutie Mark.

Cutie Mark (1-5 CP/level): You possess a special talent in which you excel. On taking the Cutie Mark, identify both the talent and the mark which symbolizes it (both subject to GM approval). Add your level of Cutie Mark to any rolls involving your special talent.

Example: Sweetie Bell acquires Cutie Mark (Singing) level 2, in addition to Soul 5 and Performing Arts (Singing) 3. The next time she makes a Performing Arts (Singing) check, her target number is her Soul stat (5), plus her level of Performing Arts (3), plus 1 for having the appropriate specialization, plus her level of Cutie Mark (2), for a total of 5+3+1+2=11. Assuming no difficulty modifiers, she must roll an 11 or lower to succeed.

The cost per level of Cutie Mark varies depending on how widely applicable the special talent is:

  • 1/level: The special talent is usually only applicable to a few non-combat rolls which only rarely come up in normal play, such as apple farming.
  • 2/level: The special talent is applicable to a variety of non-combat rolls, none of which occur frequently, or applicable to a narrow selection of rolls which come up frequently, such as carpentry.
  • 3/level: The special talent is applicable to a variety of non-combat rolls, some or all of which come up frequently, such as parties.
  • 4/level: The special talent is applicable to a variety of non-combat rolls and/or a narrow selection of combat rolls, such as stunts.
  • 5/level: The special talent is applicable to a wide variety of combat and non-combat rolls, and/or is deemed very powerful by the GM, such as speed or magic.

Note that the specific cost of a talent may vary according to the type of game. In a game focused on competing in agricultural fairs, Cutie Mark (Apple Farming) might be 5 points per level!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Mocking the Fans

Since the beginning of the month, I've noticed that Meghan McCarthy has taken what could be called a "gently mocking" tone toward fans that are unhappy about Twilight becoming an alicorn.

I have to say, I'm relieved. Not because I particularly care whether or not Twilight has wings, but because it shows clearly that the people in charge of the show are not listening to the fans. That's a good thing! As I argued in my "Double Rainboom" review and as I will likely continue to discuss, especially in fanworks month but also throughout the project, fandoms (as opposed to individual fans) tend to not actually be very good at identifying what makes their shows good. A Friendship Is Magic driven by the opinions of the most vocal fans would be an utter mess, consisting of nothing but Fan-Favorite Character of the Week Returns, an endless stream of references, and characters reduced to their ask-whichever Tumblr caricatures.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Fillies for Feminism

I have an article on MLP up at the Slacktiverse! It's called "Fillies for Feminism," and discusses why MLP is important and valuable from a feminist perspective.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Exploding "Girliness"

There's a video by Digibrony called "Embracing Girliness" going around, and I think it does a good job highlighting how MLP criticizes one of the fundamental injustices of our society, that "feminine" traits are devalued relative to "masculine" traits.

However, I think he still implicitly assumes that there are such things as objectively masculine and feminine traits, and as such misses one of the other things the show does well, which is exploding the masculinity/femininity binary to begin with.

While male and female humans differ physically, the notion that certain psychological traits or interests are "masculine" and certain "feminine"--a belief known as gender essentialism--has no basis in reality. This is not (just) my typically liberal, feminist opinion; it's a matter of scientific fact. (For the less statistics-minded among you: If people fall into two distinct groups, then there should be two spikes on the graph, one for each group, as in the strength graph behind the link. If there aren't two spikes, it means that people don't fall into two distinct groups, as in the assertiveness graph. In the latter case, it possible that the "average" man is more assertive than the "average" woman or vice versa; however, there's so much overlap between the two groups that the average is basically meaningless.)

Society has arbitrarily decided that men should have certain traits and women should have certain other traits, and it punishes people who do not possess their gender's assigned traits or, worse still, possess the other gender's assigned traits. However, that's something we collectively decided to do; we can just as easily collectively decide not to do it. The "just like a boy" scene Digibrony shows is a rare misstep in a show that otherwise does an excellent job of avoiding gender essentialism by giving every main character, Spike included, both stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: She Of the Crossed Eyes

I'll get more into this when I get to "The Last Round-Up," most likely, but my least favorite fanon character is Derpy Hooves. I don't like the exploitative, mawkish nature of the way she's used (the Save Derpy YouTube video is the worst offender), the ableist assumptions that went into her genesis, the slur in her name... she represents a side of bronies I'm always troubled to encounter.

That said, I've seen two interpretations of her I really like. The first is in the Lunaverse, where she's always and only Ditzy Doo (which is marginally better as far as naming people after ableist slurs is concerned), the Element of Kindness, a hardworking single mother who's had a very rough life and is of perfectly normal intelligence, although her education is a little spotty due to aforementioned rough life.

The second is this comic. It's a great interpretation, and I want to see more like this.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fire the Orbital Friendship Beam (Double Rainboom)

100% show-accurate. What, you don't remember the
episode when Celestia banished Domo-Kun to the moon?
April is Fanworks Month, where we take a break from the show for a few weeks and celebrate the creativity of the brony community by examining fanworks with the same seriousness and critical eye as regular episodes. This week is the fan animation "Double Rainboom" by FlamingoRich and a small army of associates.

It’s March 30, 2013. The top song is "Harlem Shake," because corporate media love memes, and the top movie is "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," because it's March 30 and there won't be any actually good action movies for at least two months. Major news stories include the new Pope violating centuries of Catholic tradition by treating women as people, sequestration (the American equivalent to Europe’s disastrous austerity measures) taking effect in what is, to date, the single greatest triumph of right-wing obstructionism and determination to burn the world and rule over its ashes, and the Supreme Court hearing two cases regarding gay marriage bans and looking likely to overturn both.

The third season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic ended a few weeks ago, and hype has been building around the “fan-made episode” “Double Rainboom.” The brainchild and senior project of Savannah College of Art and Design student Zachary Rich, the project has exploded across the brony community since its inception. Hundreds of background artists, animators, and voice actors, all of them students or amateurs, have worked together to create what is being touted as a “show-accurate” production, even receiving an official nod of approval from Hasbro to pursue the project.

Early in March, some of the members of the project screened the first 15 minutes of the episode at Cloudsdale Congress, and I was very excited by what I saw there. The animation was very nearly spot-on, the voices were solid, and the character humor felt like the sorts of jokes the show tells. Even the sequence of Twilight imagining how the enhancement potion would work on the different characters, though animated in a style not seen in the show, was reminiscent of both the storybook style of the legend of Nightmare Moon in the series premiere and the papercraft sequence in “A Friend In Deed,” among others.

There were a few moments that felt a bit fannish throughout, especially the lengthy sequence of Rainbow Dash flying through town, sowing chaos in her wake. Some of the gags in that sequence, such as Applejack’s cart being smashed or Fluttershy fainting at the apparent vaporization of her chickens, were solid, funny character moments. However, others were pure fanservice, jokes that only those aware of fan memes would get: Scootaloo crashing into an adopt-a-chicken sign, for instance, or a certain cross-eyed pony eating a muffin.

Still, overall the work seemed to be shaping up to be truly excellent, a paragon of what fanworks can be. Fan expectation was still that the episode would be show-accurate, although at the Cloudsdale Congress event one of the animators said that applied to the animation and characterization, not necessarily the jokes and plot.

As it turned out, the plot most assuredly was not show-accurate, as the second half took a surprise turn into a crossover with The Powerpuff Girls. There was almost no foreshadowing of this twist: of the many other cartoons rapidly referenced in Rarity’s and Fluttershy’s segments of Twilight’s imagination sequence, only The Powerpuff Girls has allusions in both, and an empty container of Chemical X is visible when Rainbow bursts out of the lab, implying it was used in making the enhancement potion. Nothing else in the show implies that The Powerpuff Girls is in any way involved; instead, the only moment that seems coded as foreshadowing, the "troll face" and evil laughter from the potion itself, has no payoff. The crosser is clearly supposed to be a surprise: the disclaimer at the beginning of the film mentions only Hasbro and DHX Media; Cartoon Network and Turner don't get their disclaimer until nearly 20 minutes in. Nowhere in promoting the film did its makers ever mention it was a crossover; in short, both text and metatext do nothing to warn the reader that the Powerpuff Girls are en route.

We haven’t discussed metatext very much, though it will start to matter more in the second and especially third season, so perhaps this is a good time to address it. The text of a work is the work itself; it may be words, images, sounds, or in the case of a cartoon all of the above. The text contains both diegetic (exists within the characters’ universe) and non-diegetic elements (does not exist within the characters’ universe, such as most background music), but is limited to the confines of the work, independent of the packaging that surrounds the work. That packaging is the domain of metatext: all the things which are not actually a part of the work, but which nonetheless affect the audience’s experience of the work. Metatext for a typical episode of My Little Pony includes promotions and advertisements for the work, the opening and closing credits, the Hub or other network watermark, the commercials which air during breaks (or, obnoxiously, sometimes over top of the episode itself), and so on.

Metatext is generally secondary to text, of course, but it can still be very important in understanding a work. Metatext helps to shape audience expectations and can influence the impact of the work. If the metatext and text work against one another, the results can be quite disappointing for the audience; classic Doctor Who, for example, had a tendency to do episodes where the revelation that the Daleks (or whoever) were the villains was a major second-act plot twist, and then display the title “Revenge of the Daleks” at the beginning and heavily advertise that the Daleks were returning. On the other hand, contrast between metatext and text can be a very effective tool; the notoriously dark Neon Genesis Evangelion has an energetic, upbeat opening credits sequence that becomes more and more ironic as the series progresses.

Metatext is possibly even more important for fanworks than other kinds of works. Fanworks are very much like folklore in that they do not exist in isolation; by their very nature they are tied to a particular community and steeped in its traditions. Any fandom has its own values, beliefs, legends, traditions, and even rivalries and conflicts, which collectively form a body of lore most fans referred to as fanon (a portmanteau of “fan canon,” arising from the confusion of canon and continuity I’ve discussed previously). As with folklore, fanon is not monolithic, but exists in tension between tradition and innovation, with each fan applying their own interpretations and twists to the shared elements, some of which may then be adopted by the rest of the community. And just as any particular folktale can embrace or defy, but never ignore, its culture’s traditions, so a fanwork can embrace or deny fanon, but never simply ignore it. Even if the creator makes a point of avoiding other fans in an effort to keep from being tainted by fanon, readers will apply their interpretations of fanon to the fanwork and judge it accordingly.

Fans can be a demanding and fickle bunch. Like any community, there is only so much innovation they will accept at a time; beyond that point, the defenders of tradition step in with their criticisms and their demands. There’s nothing wrong with this; it is the natural behavior of any folk culture, and we’ve all done it at some point. However, it creates an enormous pressure to conform to fan expectations. The original work, even a serial format such as a TV show, can isolate itself from this pressure--fans, in the sense of members of a community surrounding the work, are always only a fraction of the audience, and can (and usually should) safely be ignored. Fanworks, however, are products of that fan community, and therefore cannot fully isolate themselves from its pressures.

The “Double Rainboom” team thus unknowingly did themselves a serious disservice by cultivating fan expectations for a “show-accurate” episode. For obvious reasons of both copyright and tonal incompatibility, Friendship Is Magic and Powerpuff Girls could never do a full crossover. References and allusions, sure--certainly there’s nothing particularly alien to the show in the notion of three cute elementary school-aged characters who go off and have adventures in which they are oddly more competent than the adults around them--but never a full crossover. Its premise makes it impossible for “Double Rainboom” to be an episode of the show, and the resulting conflict between expectation and execution--between metatext and text--left many viewers feeling disappointed.

It certainly doesn't help that the crossover is barely used once introduced. There is only a minimal amount of interaction between Rainbow Dash and the Townsville characters, and much of the time is swallowed by another reference-loaded chase sequence. One of the few ways to make a crossover really work (and we'll get deeper into this next week) is to use the juxtaposition of the two works to comment on both, highlight the contrasts and similarities. That almost starts to happen here, with the difference in the way Rainbow Dash deals with the monster from Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, but it doesn't end up going anywhere.

What “Double Rainboom” does succeed in doing, however, is to show us what a group of hundreds of fans thought other fans would want to see. They gave us is memes, allusions, crossovers, and in-jokes, like an animated version of Tumblr. These are the things of which fan culture is made, arguably (though they thankfully left out shipping), but they are not how good cartoons happen. Back in the series of articles I’ve taken to calling “Friendship Is Alchemy” I posited that the two leading categories of contemporary television for geeks are meme depots and cult shows. Cult shows are older, dating back to the 1980s and Twin Peaks, and rely heavily on metatext for their entertainment value--specifically, much of the entertainment value of a cult show is in the paranoid theorizing of fans in a conspiratorial mode, trying to guess where the show will go and figure out the underlying mysteries. Meme depots, on the other hand, are a little more recent (the earliest example I’m aware of is Family Guy in the late 1990s), and rely for their entertainment value on either generating or repeating memes that can be shared between fans.

Fans, being human, are frequently blinded by their expectations. Thus many fans try to approach Friendship Is Magic as either a meme depot or a cult show.  Trained by cult shows to scour every line of dialogue and throwaway reference for “clues,” fans engage in elaborate theoretical exercises to try to construct back stories and answer questions the show has never particularly asked: What happened to Applejack’s parents? What does Fluttershy do for a living? Who was Starswirl the Bearded? At the same time, trained by meme depots to find intertextuality inherently funny, they crow in delight at every allusion to another work or fan meme, and propagate every funny one-liner or cool moment as a new meme.

There’s nothing wrong in any of this; it can be a lot of fun. (Ask me sometime about Sombra, Cadence, and “Hearts and Hooves Day” for my own absurd engagement with the paranoid viewing style.) The problem lies in forgetting that while some shows (Doctor Who, for instance) may be clearly operating in a cult tradition, and others (Regular Show) in a meme depot tradition, Friendship Is Magic does neither. The value of Friendship Is Magic is in its text. It’s not about familiar, easily repeatable gags, or the illusion of an overarching plot coming together to an inevitable conclusion; it’s about characters we grow to love and an opportunity to retreat to a utopian vision of a world in which everyone loves their neighbor as a person like themselves.

One of the dangers in alchemical transformation is stopping too early. The xanthosis stage results in gold, which might seem quite good enough, but it is not the magnum opus, the philosopher's stone. Like a fanwork or a folktale, mid-first-season Friendship Is Magic suffered from a tension between the old, the option of being a typical My Little Pony show, and the new, being a cult show or meme fountain in an attempt to reflect the likes and interests of a fan community of geeks. In my article on "Fall Weather Friends," I identified the former with Applejack and the latter with Rainbow Dash. It is a very good thing that neither of them won that contest, because only by synthesizing these opposites can the rubedo stage be achieved and something truly new and transformative be created.

"Double Rainboom" is like a glimpse of a dark alternate reality where Rainbow Dash won the race, and Friendship Is Magic became a meme depot. Its first half depicts the best-case scenario of that path, a reasonably funny, colorful, and well-animated, but ultimately unsatisfying and soulless, filler of time. Its second half shows where the path ultimately leads: nonsensical chaos, and a great deal of noise to no purpose.

In the end, it seems the most valuable thing the "Double Rainboom" team provided the fandom is animation resources. This shouldn't be taken as a knock to them in the slightest; creating something that other fans can use to make great fanwork is nothing to sneeze at. Already the puppets they created have been put to use in other projects--including "Snowdrop," which despite featuring none of the mane six and being set almost entirely a millennium before the show, still manages to come far closer to capturing its spirit.

Next week: Old and new find themselves in tension in an entirely new way when a mercurial force of chaos arrives in Ponyville. No, not Discord, he's next month. I'm talking about the kind of mercurial force of chaos that arrives in a mysterious blue box...