Design Article #4: Keywords and Their Applications

by Ithry

Let’s talk about Keywords! Keywords are the text located on the bar under the art box of Pony and Start cards. They help to define a character in a mechanical sense, that is, in a way that allows them to interact with other cards in the game. Keywords can be classified into three categories based on their meaning and usage: name keywords, racial keywords, and trait keywords, which I will describe below. Note, though, that each of these is mechanically equivalent, and that keywords should be listed on the card alphabetically, without regard to category.

Name Keywords

Name keywords are pretty self-explanatory. They are the name of the character (or characters) on the card. Name keywords are only used if the title of the card is anything but just the name of the character. This helps to establish which character is being portrayed, and which Goals it counts for. For example, a card with the title "Rainbow Dash" wouldn't have the Rainbow Dash keyword, but "Major General Dash" does. Now, one might argue that Princess Celestia doesn’t need the Celestia keyword, because her whole name is in the card title. However, name keywords serve a secondary purpose: to inform card designers what name should be used on Goals. If someone were to write a Goal that requires Princess Celestia, then cards like Mortal Celestia and Princess CelestAI wouldn’t count.

Generally, a card portraying 3 or more characters, like The Wonderbolts or An Entire Swarm of Breezies, will have no name keywords. Since TSSSF is about shipping specific characters with other characters, one should probably stick to designing cards with one or two characters to avoid this entirely.

Some cards portray situations that justify name keywords of other characters that are not explicitly shown on the art, but may be implied. Fanfic Author Discord has the Twilight Sparkle keyword as he is dressed as Twilight and is taking over her role as fanfic author as the Start card. Fanfic Author Gabby Gums is another good example of name keywords at work. She has the Twilight Sparkle keyword as the article is about her, and also the name of the CMCs gossip column persona, Gabby Gums. The individual name keywords for the CMC are not mentioned as they are a group of three, but their group is represented by the trait keyword "CMC". Fanfic Detective Rarity has the Shadow Spade keyword as she is channeling the essence of Shadow Spade in her demeanor and attire. As you might have noticed, name keywords tend to get trickier on Start cards, but make sure you're careful with them on Pony cards as well!

Racial Keywords

Racial keywords are also pretty straightforward. They represent the actual race of the character if their race is not Alicorn, Earth Pony, Pegasus, or Unicorn, because it wouldn’t be practical to create a new race symbol for each non-pony race. Also, having only four races makes it easier to achieve Goals that require a certain race, so racial keywords are a good way to allow one to add their proper races for mechanical effect and flavor. This group of keywords covers things like dragons, griffons, and anything else that is non-pony.

Instead of referring to a Pony by its racial keyword, rules text, especially Goal requirements, should refer to them as a Pony with that keyword. For example, A Hoard of Princesses says “Any Pony with the Dragon keyword” instead of “Any Dragon”. This may seem wordy, but it tells the player where to look on the card to see if it counts. This is especially important for racial keywords that are less obvious to players who are new to TSSSF and/or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, such as Changeling.

Trait Keywords

Trait keywords are a sort of catch-all category for classifications that are not name or racial keywords. While it may be a catch-all, this shouldn't be taken to mean just anything should be used as a trait keyword. These keywords represent things like group affiliation, status, or some other characteristic of the pony being portrayed. For example, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo are (usually) members of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and have the CMC keyword. Celestia and Luna are princesses, and have the Princess keyword. Tom, Bloomberg, and Smarty Pants are inanimate objects, and have the Object keyword.

Since the keywords on a card are defined by the character being portrayed on the card, cards that portray different versions of a character may have different keywords. While Apple Bloom will always likely be a member of the Apple family (and thus have the Apple keyword), she might not always have the CMC keyword, depending on the flavor you're going for. Sweetie Belle is normally not villainous, but she is on Con-Mare Sweetie Belle, which has the Villain keyword.

As with racial keywords, rules text should use the phrase “Pony with the keyword” so that players know where to look on the card to see if it counts. If a Goal just required a “Princess”, it could be satisfied by Mortal Celestia, which has the Princess keyword, Pretty Princess, which does not, or even a gender-swapped Prince Blueblood. If instead that Goal read “Pony with the Princess keyword”, the intention would be clear. (Note: this phrase is not used with name keywords, because the card title also counts for rules text that refers to Ponies by name. Also, it is important for players to know which keywords cannot be granted by Keyword Change Ships. For these reasons, name keywords are used alone, or preceded by “any”, as in “Celestia” or “any Celestia”.)

Creating New Keywords

So why would one need to create a new keyword? A name keyword for a new character is justifiable. The same goes for a new racial keyword for a new non-pony race. Trait keywords are where it can get tricky. Keyword space is limited, so one must be cautious when creating new keywords. The keywords you create could be adopted by other card designers, and with too many trait keywords in circulation, a character may have too many to fit on their keyword line. Also, making a new keyword that would make sense on cards that exist also isn’t great, since the old cards that would reasonably have that keyword won’t and won’t count for any new Goals one would make involving that new keyword. To avoid these problems, try and keep the use of it very restricted so that the number of situations it can be used in is very limited. A good way of doing this is creating a keyword that only applies to a new group of characters that hasn't existed in TSSSF before. For example:

This Sonata is a member of the band, the Dazzlings, and gets the Dazzlings keyword. There are only two other members of this band that would reasonably have this keyword. Each individual member would also likely to have only this keyword, their name keyword, and the racial keyword Siren.

Usually, when creating a new keyword, you would want to have a mechanical reason in mind. Using the Dazzlings keyword above, I created a Goal for the same set involving it:

Now there's a mechanical reason for this keyword to exist. But suppose I didn't have a Goal or power in mind involving the Dazzlings keyword: it's still a reasonable keyword for the Sirens to have and other card designers might make mechanics that care about it. Using the Dazzlings keyword in this scenario would be an example of future-proofing, as it would be unfortunate if I decided to not give these Sirens the Dazzlings keyword and then someone else made a set with that keyword, because then my Sirens wouldn't count for those new mechanics.

Of course, there are examples of official and fan cards where extraneous keywords are used solely for humor, like Jumping Jack Flash Sentry, which has the Jerk keyword. While many people certainly consider this true and will get a laugh out of it, no cards have been made that care about it mechanically. Such “joke” keywords should be used sparingly, as keyword space is limited, and you wouldn’t want card designers accidently adopting them, thinking they are serious.

Final Thoughts

As I’ll mention in probably every article I write, ultimately it’s up to you, the designer, what keywords to use and whether or not to create a new keyword, and I hope this article has helped you to understand how keywords are used and how they affect the game.

Normal powers were already covered in the previous article, so next time we'll talk about Special powers on Pony cards! Special powers are the catch-all category for powers and allow desginers to make any kind of effect they want! We'll see what makes for interesting and not-so-interesting powers next time!