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Why Pokemon Campaigns Don’t Work

subtitle: and how to make em work anyways.

There’s a high overlap between nerds that like to roll dice and nerds that like Pokemon. I think it’s fair to assume that most any nerd you come face-to-face with has some stance on Pokemon as to whether or not they like it.

I’ve been playing ttrpgs for a decent enough amount of time that I’ve seen numerous Pokemon port attempts to systems such as D&D 3.5, 4e, 5e, FATE, and I think one time Shadowrun. Point is, I’ve seen a lot of people that want to play Pokemon. There’s even a major, highly unique, Pokemon tabletop game called Pokemon Tabletop United (PTU), which is pretty much the spiritual successor to Pokemon Tabletop Adventures (PTA). It even has a lot of the same devs.

But I’m not here to talk about any specific system and why or why not it works, but instead I want to talk about why Pokemon campaigns — at least with the standard fare of 6 Pokemon trainer teams — just don’t work with tabletops.

In saying that, however, I also plan to recommend how Pokemon campaigns could be run.

 


The Broken Formula

Photo by Melvina Mak on Unsplash

As someone that desperately places play speed and action resolution above almost every other aspect of a tabletop roleplaying game, I’m already at odds with most tabletops on the market. While there are certainly GMs capable of bringing rounds of 7-players under 10-minutes, this, to me, is an exception to a wider epidemic of slow play involving “can I do this? no? what about this?” This is particularly evident to me whenever I play D&D 5e as I typically see rounds lasting anywhere up to 45-minutes to an hour for as little as 5-player games. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the fault of 5e — I grew up playing D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder and those are notorious for the sheer number of abilities that can paralyze unprepared players. For me, this sort of slowdown seems prevalent to mostly d20 systems as I rarely see the same type of slowdown from Powered by the Apocalypse and other narrative-heavy games. But that might be just because the d20 systems I’ve played have way too many abilities to work with.

Either way, the point is that I care a lot about play speed. Multiplayer games tend to be fairly slow with just singular players and their characters. Gameplay lasts forever and eternity as is.

So why did anyone think it was a good idea to give all these players up to 6-units to play with?

It’s one of those cases where the video game, the source material, works perfectly well /because/ it’s a single-player game. Tabletops, unless you play those particularly intimate 1-to-1 games, are ultimately a multiplayer experience. In the format folks are most familiar with, there’s a nearly fixed rate of 6-pokes per trainer. Each poke can also be switched out, healed, and otherwise as the main Pokemon ttrpgs out there have separate trainer and Pokemon actions.

If we were to take a standard combat encounter, let’s say against a wild Pokemon, with a team of four players, we’re looking at a potentially 24-on-1 encounter. Even the most badass of legendaries couldn’t handle that kind of pressure. This doesn’t even include Pokemon trainer battles. Assuming a decently prepared enemy with 6, and assuming only one trainer fights them at a time, that’s a 6-on-6 fight where the other players are just waiting on the sidelines for combat to finish so they can get back to playing.

In this most standard of scenarios, the best case either way still leads to extended combat encounters with a lot of wait times for everyone. I feel the resulting conclusions as to why this is bad are self-evident.

—Tangent: A Grinding Nightmare

Not only does each and every battle for each trainer take bloody forever, but each player is also going to want to grind up each and every one of their Pokemon. Unless the GM is going to explain to everyone ‘hey don’t worry about it, don’t grind and let’s move on’ each and every campaign, the players are going to be fairly insistent on the grind. Imagine trying to equally level up 6-units per person through random battles. Now imagine doing that 5 times over for each of your players.

Either the GM is going to allow level ups every fight, ergo trivializing the value of levels, or they actually go through each and every grindy battle with realistic exp and feed into the time-sink fully.

A different response to this is to just roll an overall ‘grinding check’ to see how many levels someone gains each day, but even that’s just waving away an obvious problem in the mechanics surrounding level grinding. Rule 0 “if it’s broke I can just fix it” isn’t a good defense for lackluster mechanics.

Combat Formula

Pokemon works as a video game with its large amount of types and typing combinations because a lot of the calculations surrounding it are completely done off-hand by computers. Calculating and checking each damage typing versus the defensive typing of a Pokemon every time an attack becomes either tedious or complicated. Pop Quiz: My level 34 Steelix uses Iron Tail, a Steel-type move that deals 3d8+10 damage at +2 Attack against a Pokemon with Fire/Dragon at -1 Defense. Not even counting the stats and the natures, this is already looking to be a hassle, right? All of these things make it somehow more annoying to hit than it is to fail.

As one of the most prolific and complete systems, I’d like to bring Pokemon Tabletop United (or PTU) as my leading example. Let’s look at their damage formulas to the right.

I want to say that I think PTU is well done and it does well to replicate the damage formulas of the original games. My main concern is that it’s done /too well/ and that its accuracy is part of what ultimately slows it down. Imagine doing this damage formula for every attack, between every Pokemon, for each trainer, for each combat session. There’s a lot of helpful charts and documents to expedite this, but those are less ‘just to help’ and more ‘absolutely necessary’ for the game to function at a reasonable crawl compared to an absurd one.

As is, being accurate to this degree, when doing Pokemon in this analog pen-and-paper way, is too slow. It works in the video game, again, because the game does all of these calculations on its own. I think that perhaps using an alternative health system such as wounds instead of hit points could be a good start, but there aren’t currently any major systems that have made that work.


The Solution

I want to emphasize that I’m not just here to bash Pokemon tabletops. I think all the projects out there to make Pokemon tabletops are cool. People like Pokemon, people like tabletops, so why wouldn’t the two of them be cool together? Despite those reasons, however, I believe how people play them, as well as the type of mechanics that govern them, are fairly misguided. I’ll start with the mechanics first as that seems simpler to address.

—Mechanics & A Recommended System

When it comes to the mechanics, I feel the transition from video game to tabletop seems fairly straightforward. Here are a bunch of stats, such as HP, so just translate that to a sheet, right? The problem with Pokemon stats and all these base value combinations, however, is that almost every Pokemon tabletop I’ve seen attempts to replicate the leveling up aspect of Pokemon in some form. Be it d20 systems replicating it within 20-levels, or even PTU’s 100 levels. This leads to fairly inflated pools and stats that you still need to keep track of individual character sheets for almost every Pokemon.

If the enemy needs to smack down six of my pokes with 80+ HP to provide an honest threat, then either they’re doing too little too slowly, or practically one-shotting me. This, alongside the various damage calculations I’ve seen in an attempt to replicate the game, could honestly all be replaced with a simple wound system like in Savage Worlds.

All your pokes can take 3 wounds before going down. In Savage Worlds, you need to beat both a Parry (to hit) and Toughness (to hurt) to strike a wound. Every 4 you hit above Toughness, you score an additional wound. So if a move was super effective, it’d deal +4 damage, thereby ensuring an extra wound if it hits, or if it was ineffective deal -2 damage and make it difficult to hit. Each wound you have is a -1 to all your rolls, thereby replicating the battle damage that your pokes accumulate. Furthermore, Savage Worlds is an extremely fast game — there was a time I got through 12-players in a zombie apocalypse game within a half hour. Even with Pokemon’s team inflation, I’d be able to get through that in a solid heartbeat.

Other systems it would work with would be, say, FATE Core, Apocalypse Worlds, or even any other rules-lite system. While there is definitely an urge to take the more statistical, game-like approach, a lot of fun in the anime series tends to revolve around things like the Power of Friendship™. Rules-lite systems shine where rules-heavy systems could weigh too much on the overall enjoyment of a game. I’m actually planning on running some Pokemon one-shots in Dozens RPG [1], a recent and totally free rules-lite system, for some new players in light of the quarantine. This is 100% because I’m a sucker for d12 systems.

Photo by Martin Vorel

—How to Play

When it comes to Pokemon, the first thing you need to address is the 6-unit team problem. Outside of the game, having 6-Pokemon is just too much. If you were to GM almost any other system, it’s regularly felt that having to deal with player groups of 8-10 is extremely difficult. With that number in mind, try to aim to limit the number of pokes you, as the GM, have to deal with to 10 at most.

1 player = 6 Pokemon
2 players = 4-5 Pokemon
3 players = 3 Pokemon
4 players = 2 Pokemon
5 players = 2 Pokemon

Personally, I honestly prefer to limit Pokemon campaigns to using only 3 Pokemon per player regardless of the number of players. I think it allows a trainer to have a nice and balanced team, all while not inflating the game.

I’m also quite a fan of what the mobile game, Pokemon Masters, did in that all the trainers you gacha for have a Partner Pokemon or the singular main Pokemon of any given trainer. I understand it can be fairly limiting — Pokemon is supposed to be about adventuring and catching them all — but it adds a lot to the tension of any singular fight. PTU, in particular, has mechanics for you to be a fully playable trainer with physical skills. Admittedly I’d absolutely love to play some sort of phantom thief Pokemon campaign where you and your partner poke are trying to rob a museum.

Another element of the game is to figure out how to make each fight relevant and important and to not see certain pokes as throwaways in order to win the full match. My response to this is that when a Pokemon is knocked out, they need to be recovered at a Pokemon center. However, it takes a long time for them to recover properly, and likely won’t be usable for several days, or until they hit up another Pokemon center. Since Pokemon can just be deposited in a box, you won’t have to pick them up from the same center. With this sort of ruleset, it’d also mean I wouldn’t allow items like revive or max-revive. This makes each exchange between your Pokemon and the opponent’s both meaningful and tense.

One more recent development, or at least call-back, in the Pokemon community is the remake of Pokemon Mystery Dungeons. In these games, you play a Pokemon and their team of pals out to rescue other Pokemon in danger. Aside from the potential limitations of being only a singular Pokemon, you’ll at least have a diverse party capable of handling most issues. Needless to say, being a Pokemon is also a fantastic way to play a Pokemon campaign outside of the standard catch’n’battle affair..

 


So, Yeah

I think Pokemon is great. I have Pokemon Sword and I’m super excited for the later expansions. I also think tabletops are super great too. In the end, however, while nearly anything can be translated to tabletops — I’m currently working on a Megaman Battle Network playdoc if you’re into that sort of thing — I don’t think everything should.

But, if you did want to catch them all using pen & paper — or whatever other digital tool you might use instead — here are some suggestions as to how you could and/or should.

 

~Di, signing out

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Why Pokemon Campaigns Don’t Work"

#1 Comment By Dante On March 26, 2020 @ 8:20 am

Have you checked out the Big Eyes Small Mouth (BESM) system’s take on Pokemon campaigns? I recall they had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek supplement entitled “Cute & Fuzzy Cockfighting Seizure Monsters” the premise of which I believe was that every player role-played not only a Trainer, but another Trainer’s Pokemon. Focus was very much on your relationship with said Pokemon and leveling it up, rather than having an extensive roster of other critters. Admittedly not the Pokemon video game experience, but for those who want their Pokemon with a greater focus on relationships, rather than tactical combat, something worth checking out!

#2 Comment By John On May 2, 2020 @ 11:24 pm

I’ve been in a post apocalyptic, open world sandbox, face to face RPG using the PTU rules for about 2 years. It never turns into 24 [character pokemon] on 1 enemy. Instead, it’s 4 characters, plus one of their pokemon at a time, vs a group of wild pokemon, usually 6-10. Combat does take a while, usually with one big battle, and maybe one “wandering monster” type thing. Sometimes there will be other usual things going on- gym battles are usually smaller, with weird stuff going on in the background.

With the setting, the humans tend to be more powerful than an individual pokemon. That isn’t always the case with PTU- classes like Cheerleader are aimed at supporting their pokemon from the sidelines of a gym battle, not fighting alongside them.

#3 Comment By Wanderer On May 27, 2020 @ 12:19 pm

While I do agree that PTU can be somewhat intimidating at first, I must disagree with some of the points you’ve made –

1) That Pokemon’s system of 6-per-trainer makes fights tedious and grindy: PTU expressly dissuades the player from having more than one Pokemon out at a time (locking commanding multiple Pokemon behind a late-game feat), and in many situations, the Pokemon will be the only ones battling. This leaves a battle with similar numbers of combatants to one in any tabletop game (1-per-player, plus however many enemies the GM wants to use).

2) That long battles mean that other players are sidelined, doing nothing for long periods: Once again, PTU directly recommends that all battles, particularly the longer gym battles, break from the precedent of the mainline games and allow the entire party to participate in some way. Not only does this ameliorate the issue of sidelined players, but it also allows for more strategic and interesting combat than repeated 1v1s.

3) Damage calculations are annoying and painful: Okay, this is a valid point, and one where the rules are not particularly elegant. However, a number of tools exist (Roll20 springs to mind) to calculate damage automatically, leaving only some minor arithmetic for type effectiveness. In fact, this extends to…

4) Keeping track of a team of Pokemon is annoying and painful: Again, tools exist to help automate the process, making it less of a hassle. It also helps that a player is unlikely to be statting up multiple Pokemon at once, but rather to be building their team gradually over the course of an adventure. On top of that, I – and this is my personal opinion – find filling out sheets in PTU much simpler than in D&D. There are fewer choices that need to be made up front, and many parts follow easily from other parts.

All in all, your concerns about Pokemon as a tabletop system are certainly valid, but the systems available are not as “misguided” as you make them out to be. I do like your idea of an injury system replacing HP though, especially since most Pokemon in PTU go down in three or four hits anyway.

#4 Comment By Di. On May 27, 2020 @ 3:04 pm

Oh! I have a few rebuttals if that’s fine:

1. I didn’t mean ‘6 pokemon at once’ but the fact that you can sequentially go through a 6-mon team per player. Getting a poke down then just replacing it with 5 more health bars lowers the stakes. Having 6 health bars per trainer when you’re liking going 3-5 trainers in a wild encounter or against a boss is a nightmare.

2. I didn’t mean the other players are sidelined either. I was going by the conceit that multiple trainers would be fighting in any given battle unless there was specifically a 1-on-1 trainer battle.

3. Having assist tools doesn’t fix the underlying problem. “Rule 0: if it’s broke, I can fix it” doesn’t really defend the broken parts. It’s like buying a car saying you can fix it; it doesn’t change that the car you’re buying still needs fixing.

4. Yeah, I definitely agree.

I think pokemon tabletops can work, but the fans of pokemon into, well, pokemon often tend to try to replicate the games too much. I want them to work, but I think there definitely needs to be changes to do so.

#5 Comment By Dwain On January 29, 2021 @ 7:41 am

I reccomend Pokemon 5e, it uses largely D&D 5e rules, Pokemon are monster statblocks with essentially the sidekicks in Tasha’s except controlled by the players, and moves function similar to spells for each pokemon. It really simplifies the system of Pokemon a lot imo and really does a lot to actually make it work in a tabletop setting. There is still some math (as there usually is in D&D) but to my knowledge its nothing that isnt usually done in 5e.

#6 Comment By MMRonline On December 3, 2020 @ 3:42 pm

I have to agree with Seith! I play in a Pokemon TTRPG (Pokemon 5e) for our YouTube channel. I am not sure how many homebrews are out there, but I have had no complaints with the one we play.

Frankly I think it boils down to what type of game play you are looking for as a player and playing with the right people. I would say this for any TTRPG. Your always going to have the most fun playing with people with similar play styles or at least want the same things out of their experience. Additionally Pokemon Table Top games aren’t typically intended to be played with more then 1-2 players. The one we play specifically states that. It is intended for a GM and one to two other players. We have however played one shots with a GM and 3 players which was more challenging sure but was still fun.

All and all, I agree pokemon games aren’t optimized for large tables, but they also aren’t intended to be (at least thats what our version indicates right off the bat). I honestly think that’s okay! There should be variety in ttrpg’s and when it doesnt work for your table modify it. In the end its about having fun with friends.

#7 Comment By seith On September 8, 2020 @ 6:33 am

Even with everything you said. Here is the key to playing a pokemon game. Its not speed. Its fun. Fun with your friends. Each player doesn’t send out 6 units there are just 6 units.

But combat aside if you are having fun with everyone at the table then anything can work.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 23, 2021 @ 7:29 am

Don’t forget Pokethulhu!
My favorite and surprisingly workable take on the genre.