I’ve been chasing Pokémon as a Golden Goose for a while. So long, in fact, that a golden goose has probably been added to the lists of Pokémon! But I think I finally have a system I’m happy with. (Spoiler alert: I built a Pokémon module for that system I made).
But before I can tell you about my world, I think it’s important to explain, from a development aspect, of why just throwing something together or using someone else’s massive system conversion couldn’t work for me.
What are the sources?
This is not a question of “What is Pokémon?” That’s an important question and one I decided was not worth a place in a TTRPG. Pokémon comes primarily from two sources, an anime and a hand held video game. It’s had a bunch of other media it’s been in, but I think it’s safe to say that those two sources are the source of the Lore we’re going to be building on with a TTRPG
There are a lot of games out there, but in general, they all share some common elements that are hard to work into a TTRPG.
First, the Pokémon Games are a Computer Fest. It’s a database management game, and everything in the game relies on it. I think each stat also has to track its max, its min, it’s current value, it’s IV’s, how the nature effects it, how many vitamins it’s had. Then each attack get like six numbers applied to it as it deals damage. Each area has it’s own random encounter table, for each type of grass, and for fishing and surfing.
Second, the games are First Player Only. Sure, there is competitive battling, but that doesn’t actually make for a multi-user experience. You aren’t telling a story together, or growing together, you’re taking the fruits of your single player game, and comparing them to others.
Third, the games can get Grindy. Now, I don’t mind a grind, me. I’ll hatch eggs and do the work, but some people examine each blade of grass to catch the Pokémon that has that one ability that’s a 10% drop, then hatches 200 eggs to get the perfect nature and IV combo, then fight the same trainer again and again to level their new star Pokémon up the right way. It can get insanely grindy, as the urge to control results takes hold. (This grindy is related to the fact that it’s only you playing. It’s easy to spend YOUR time doing things like this)
Fourth, the Linear Stories are Rail-Roady. Look, I don’t mind a linear story, and I can understand why they have to have so many rails on a game that has to be complex enough for adults to enjoy, yet simple enough for a kid to progress, but seriously, the games are getting worse. (From what I hear. I haven’t played the last few. The idea of being in a 3 hour tutorial like X and Y had definitely contributed towards me not spending the time and money.)
Fifth, the World has Power Tiers. I don’t think of this as a problem with the game, although it doesn’t depict an actual world. Video games have to do stuff like this to preserve interest into the late game. But it makes for wonky world maps and the verisimilitude of the world is bent.
Sixth, There is No Risk. As dangerous as the world is in places, the only punishment you have for losing a battle is a loss of money (which is rarely a thing you care about). The game doesn’t continue the story with your failure- you can repeat the cut scene dialogue and fight the villain again and again. (One game, X/Y had a dialogue choice, where both sides led to the same response and the same fight!) Losing a battle means you get to restart at the Pokémon Center with more XP than you left the first time. Meta Game Modes like Nuzlocke were created by fans to make failure matter.
Seventh, Combat is Lockstep. As part of the aforementioned Computer Fest, combat is very mechanical. A TTRPG should have a fluid combat, where terrain and improvisation should matter. (I had a person suggest to me once that a Pokémon game could be run where the players play a TTRPG, then go to Gameboys for combat. Seriously.)
There’s is probably more things about the game world that are important, but I think these items are a big enough indicator that we can’t really base a TTRPG solely off of the content of the Video Games
The Anime is going to be closer to what we’re looking for, although it still has some issues. with how it is presented. (Full Disclosure: I haven’t watched
much any… beyond the Kanto/Jhoto days)
First, it is still a First Player Only Story. The secondary characters have side-stories, but mostly, they are there to support and advise the main character. When their stories are done, they’re swapped out for a new side character.
Second, If it was a multiple player party, the Side Story is the Main Story. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have a character focused on acquiring the 8 gym badges or whatever, but while that’s fine for a single character, the entire party should have other things they’re focused on as a group that drives the whole story. One character’s drive for excellence is not a great group motivation.
Third, the show is based on Snippets of Stories. It’s not a bad way to run a game, if you’re doing one-shots. There’s plenty of ways to make it work, actually. This is probably the better way to do super hero stories. And Westerns do it too, I guess. So it’s a stylistic choice, I guess, one that needs to be made. Are we getting occasional glimpses into the characters’/party’s life? Or are we following them as they learn and grow? And as a related note, snippets don’t have long threads of mystery and plot, which are a thing I like to include when I can.
Fourth, the Villain is Rubbish. This is a broad stroke. I haven’t watched enough to claim that every episode has a poor showing on the villainous side, but I think if you expect a Jessie and James and Meowth type villain, you’ll be in trouble.
Fifth, the Mechanics of how Pokémon work in the anime are kinda Vague. This is to be expected. It’s an anime and it’s primate goal is to make episodes, then tell a story, then be consistent. There may be a few other steps in-between things, but you get the gist. Any game with mechanics was going to run into this issue. A TTRPG is the sweet spot that is half the Gameboy game, and half the anime, and allows tables to lean into whichever they prefer.
If the above lists have worked as intended, I now have a list of qualifications that I have to meet, which solves the issues listed. Let’s see what I can do.
It’s been a long standing rule of mine that you should never do a thing in a game that a computer could do better. So I took the big database that is Pokémon and said “No.” I don’t have a list of Pokémon, where all their stats have been converted from one game to another. Instead, I took my Specialty System, and built a new page. Instead of having a number of stats, Pokémon start with 3 ranks in various Specialties. Perhaps they’ll grow stronger, but any Pokémon can be reduced to 3 Specialties.
(I’ve been quizzed on my Pokémon Specialties, and it seems to work. Some Pokémon, obviously, have more going on, but with 3 ranks, players have to prioritize what the Pokémon means to them. Maybe Player A has a Charizard that is fire focused, with Elemental/Armed/Flying. Or player B has decided to have a more martial build, with Strength/Large/Root(Dragon). Both of these sets can describe a Charizard, without having to define what a Charizard is.
Remember when I said I wasn’t going to define what a Pokémon was? This is what I meant. There isn’t going to be a book like a monster manual, that the players can flip through and get an understanding of what’s happening. You need to have prior knowledge before playing. It doesn’t have to be a high level of knowledge, but I need you to bring a modest mental simulation of what a Pokémon is to the table.
The Specialty Combat System also removes more Computer stuff. Gone are the complicated equations. Heck, I got rid of Type damage and STAB and the whole lot of it! And there’s no XP in my system. There’s barely money!
This also gets rid of the grind aspect. There’s no Pokémon to catch, since it’s point buy. There is no power leveling to do, or Pokémon breeding or any of that. Grind is Gone.
The Reason there are Gamemasters
One of my jobs as a GM is to resolve half the stuff on the list of things to fix. Story Snippets? That’s just about writing a campaign and simulating a world, ain’t it bruv? Villain? That’s on me. Power tiers? Some games might have the mountains getting more dangerous, but meeting the challenge to the players is, yeah, part of my job. Linear stories? Me. Dynamic Combat? Me. Ensuring that the story engages all players, with everyone having time in he spotlight and unique individual side quests? Yup, still me.
The amount of risk in the world will vary, table to table, but I promise you, even if the game isn’t perma-death, the villains will gain a victory if you only have a half-drowned rat to fight with, no matter how electric it is..
(I just realized I should have been inserting poke-puns into this post. ah, well. Too late to start now)
So what can you expect of a Pokémon game run by me? What should you be prepared fore, what makes sense for the world? Let’s run some bullet points.
- Characters, Maps and Stories from other media will not be as useful as you hope.
Sure, I might use Professor Oak as a quest giver, or have the story take place in Saffron City, but I guarantee I will be making a lot of changes. Don’t expect a bottle of water to be an acceptable bribe, that’s what I’m saying.
- This is a world where you can punch out a Pokémon-
One of my personal hallmarks of a good Pokémon game is that I could totally take a Weedle. We had the safari zone, but that place didn’t make ANY sense. The character creation is along the same lines for Pokémon and people, so yeah, you can spar with your fighting-type and train for the championship.
- – but it also a world filled with really scary Poke-MONSTERS.
The games never really captured this. Honestly, D&D is supposed to be like this, but I’m not great at it. There are places where the world is tame, but the rest should be very very scary. These monsters can fly faster then planes, their claws can shred steel, they cause earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, a lot of scary stuff. So go on, punch that Weedle. Just make sure a Beedrill can’t see it. (Or hope your Partner Pokémon is able to fight them off!)
- Legendary Pokémon are Special.
Look, at my table, I doubt I’ll be super picky about what Pokémon you have and how you came by them. But I can guarantee you do not have THE Zapdos or THE Suicune. Legendary Pokémon are Special. Maybe there might be a thing after you fight one, where I could let you get a clone, but that would be after you did the boss fight. And it would be TOUGH. Either that, or you’re letting me have more than one Legendary Pokémon. And you don’t want that, trust me. (Fossil Pokémon are kind of a grey area.)
- You have a partner! Maybe many! But only one at a time.
You don’t have to have one, I suppose, the game is built around that, but it’s fitting for the world. Something cute and fun is worth a rank, right? But no matter how many Pokémon you have, you can only have a single one out doing stuff at a time. It seems like it spoils the world a bit, but this is for gameplay. It limits the number of combatants in a fight, it keeps certain challenges from being super easy. Just pretend that Pokémon fight each other for your attention or something like that, or they interfere with their ability to pay attention to possible Wild Pokémon Attacks or something.
In exchange, you can have some free Pokeballs (one for each of your Pokémon).
- Pokeballs are not instant.
Look, sorry to be an Indian giver. This shouldn’t really matter? Probably? Basically, I’m not going to allow using returning to a Pokeball to dodge an attack or stop a fall or something like that.
- The game isn’t entirely about Pokémon.
Listen, Pokémon, when you look at them really really closely, are actually kind of boring. The interesting bit is people and Pokémon, working together, and accomplishing great things, together. So, no matter the campaign framework, if you’re rangers or cops or Team Rocket or whatever, the story will be built that there are some options for fighting, some for speaking, some for puzzle solving, etc. (JUST LIKE ANY OTHER RPG!). So when making your character, sure, you could build a powerhouse Pokemaster, but they won’t do much more than that. A few ranks into Pokémon get you a good partner or two, and then you can have your own set of skills.
- Pokémon protect you.
Verb, I give myself the heeby-jeebies, thinking about how easily it would be for a Wild Pokémon to gank a human. If you have a Pokémon partner nearby, not only do they have a chance of noticing things, but the Wild Pokémon will attack your partner before they attack you.
- Catching Pokémon is a Story, not a Mechanics.
It’s point buy, so just get yourself a shiny new Meowth, any time you want (or can). You don’t have to run across one in the story. But.. if you want the Pokémon that was in the story, it may be possible.
So, that is the expectation of what I wanted out of a Pokémon game, and what you should expect to see from me running one. If that sounds like your Poke-ball park (Nailed it!), then we’ll have to play sometime.