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?

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)

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?

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.

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…

*sigh*

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

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.