Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cross-Post: Why Not Pokemon?

The post I look forward to the most all week is Benjamin Gauronskas's weekly cross-post, both to get an idea of what's going on across the blog and to see if anything I did over the week merited a mention.  I think Benjamin is a case-study in two good pieces of advice I could offer to any blogger.

The first is that if you want people to read your stuff, talk about them (especially in a positive light), a point also well elucidated in Terry Pratchett's "The Truth" (at least, I remember it well).  From my perspective, through his weekly commentary on the blogosphere, Benjamin has become the pre-eminent "GURPS Blog" commentator, and which means he holds my attention, which means I often end up quoting him on this blog.  Cross-posting works, and it's one of the reasons that I think the GURPS blogosphere is really flowering right now, because of all this cross-pollination.

The second is that if you want to improve your writing, write.  Anything you make a habit of doing will improve.  Also, if you want people to read your stuff, write.  People prefer something to nothing, so even if they think your stuff is terrible... they're still reading it!  It's terribly brave to put your stuff out for the world, but being brave, being willing to fail in the effort to improve, is how leaders are born.

So, where is brave Benjamin leading us today? To Pokemon.  He's been making quite a few, and some people have asked him (excitedly, I'm sure) if he's making a pokemon campaign.  This is his response:
I've had some serious writer's block this week, so I've been putting up some filler posts statting out pokemon abilities. I think I'm getting a reputation as someone who is trying to create a pokemon setting, and I'd like to clarify that isn't the case: Pokemon, well, any video game has some moves that are interesting (and some that are trivial) so my train of thought is along the following lines:
  1. Making abilities based on a list of already existing concepts is easy, but helpful.
  1. Demonstrating that it's "easy" or at least "possible" to convert any given ability is a good demonstration of the flexibility of the system,
  1. Pokemon is fun and popular, so it's a somewhat accessible introduction to what GURPS can be or do for people who have ever thought of playing a tabletop RPG but are worried about playing a system that requires them to shoehorn things into mechanics that don't support their designs or assumptions.
In any case, it has been a bit of an education for me, with people helpfully pointing out things that could be done differently or better, so that's appreciated.
In other words, he's just writing them to maintain his habit, and because they're easy, and because he knows them.  He's also stated that he dislikes ripping stuff off, that he'd rather make his own thing, which is a sentiment I obviously agree with.

But as I read that, I thought it was a bit of a shame that he's essentially throwing away his material.  Now, far be it from me to criticize someone working to work, because all work leads to other work.  By building these abilities, he's sharpening his ability-building skills, and deepening his understanding of Pokemon.  That's a worthy goal!  But I love to say "Why do one thing when you can do two?"  If you're going to go to all the work to build up those abilities, why not also turn them into something someone can play with?  Well, he's already answered that: because he doesn't like to rip stuff off.  Besides, I'm sure you can find a half dozen, half-finished GURPS Pokemon games out there to pick from.  How could he make his material stand out?

Well, given that I'm writing a knock-off of Star Wars, I think the answer would obviously be to write a knock-off of Pokemon.  Since that sort of thought process is largely what my blog is about, I thought I'd dig into why Pokemon rocks, how we can capture that feel, and use it to build our own campaign.

Why play games?

Right, I often break into game-design theory on this blog, because it saturates what I do, and because understanding the why behind things really matters.  Failing to understand that results in cargo-culting, where you go through the motions similar to what you've seen another do, without understanding why.

For example, if I ask "Why do you suppose people play Pokemon?"  and people might respond with "To collect monsters."  They might make some facebook knock-off with 200 pieces of pretty monster-art, but the game can still fall down, because they've failed to grasp what makes Pokemon, or even game-play, work.

I've said before that a game is an exploration of emergent consequences through meaningful choices.  The ideal game presents you with an interesting puzzle and a few easy options to choose from.  Thinking you understand the puzzle, you make your meaningful choice and deal with the consequences, which both reveal why you were wrong and right, and create a new situation that still uses the same underlying rules, but shows some new facet.  The game continues to evolve, increasing in complexity until you, triumphant, have it mastered.

Pokemon as an example of interesting gameplay

Before I go much further, I want to clarify that I played Gen I, and little of anything else.  Even so, I believe the core of what makes Pokemon great has been there for the beginning.

Pokemon Theory

So, that was terribly abstract, let's see how it looks when we play Pokemon.  I think the heart of Pokemon is this:

If you're anything like me, though, that diagram is absolutely unreadable.  I don't even know where to start, right?  How do I know which pokemon to pick?

But if you dig deeper, some principles jump out at you: It's rock-scissors-paper.  Take the classic three from Gen 1: Bulbasaur (Grass), Charmander (Fire) and Squirtle (Water).  Water beats fire, which beats grass, which beats water.  But these, themselves, get caught up in additional rock-scissor-paper cycles.  Electric beats Water which beats Ground which beats Electric.  These cycles continue, being both self-contained and interacting with other cycles.  You get local clusters that engage with each other globally.

Each principle is also similar to Magic: the Gathering in that each one has its own unique concepts.  Poison causes continuing damage, while Ghost often does no damage at all, but instead afflicts the target character in some way.  Each "type" plays in a specific way.  So mastering, say, fire pokemon means mastering not just how they fight against other pokemon (what cycles they're in), but how fire pokemon tend to fight, what their advantages are in general (they tend to inflict burn, critical hits, and be very good with special offense, and not bad with normal offense.  Their defenses aren't great, so the ideal is to hit hard and hit early, leave your opponent burned, and then get the hell out of dodge).  By contrast, Grass-types often self-heal, or steal HP from their opponents, tend to be defensive and slow and self-buff.  A grass wants to stay in the fight to patiently build up (they "grow on their opponent).

I would argue that his interest in exploring these abilities is what lead Benjamin to posting these abilities.  If you're interested in more, I invite you to check out Bulbapedia, which has a nice break down of all the various pokemon and their types.

This isn't enough, though.  Pokemon can have up to two types, and this determines their stats and their vulnerabilities.  They also have attacks, powers, that determine how much damage they do.  Thus, you might have Fire pokemon, but you might have Fire/Fighting, or Fire/Flying, or Fire/Dragon, and so on. So, not only might one of your tags be caught up in several rock-scissors-paper cycles, but your second tag also gets caught up in different rock-scissor-paper cycles.  Furthermore, your moves might not match your type.  They usually do, but how a specific pokemon evolves and what moves it has differs from pokemon to pokemon, which means that while all Fire Pokemon fight in a similar way (in the same way that all Red decks tend to have certain themes), that never means they fight in the same way.

So, if a given Fire/Flying pokemon faces off against a Grass/Poison pokemon, who wins?  Well, that's a rather complicated discussion, involving quite some modeling.  In fact, it takes so much that it's hard to work it out all in your head.  Your skill is your ability to intuit all of this from a glance.

Pokemon Play

But how do even start to find purchase on all of this?  Geography.  First, you choose your pokemon: Charmander, Squirtle or Bulbasaur.  Then you need to travel routes and fight at gyms to advance.  Routes have specific pokemon that can show up.  Route 1, the very first route which takes you to Viridian City, features Rattata, a Normal, and Pidgey, a flying.  Normal doesn't do anything particularly special, so any of your three choices will serve you well.  But Flying is strong against Grass, which means you poor Bulbasaur fans get your butts kicked pretty early on.  

In Viridian, it turns out that the gym is closed and you need all seven badges before you can unlock it.  So you can continue on to, say, Route 2, which features the same as above (Normal and Flying) and adds Bug and Poison.  Water is pretty neutral to all of this, so Squirtle is safe, but Grass is vulnerable to both Bug and Poison, as well as Flying, so Bulbasaur is getting his butt kicked from all sides.  Meanwhile, Fire is strong against Bug and not particularly vulnerable to anything, so it's cleaning up.  No wonder Charmander was so popular with so many of us.  He cleaned up pretty early on.  Of course, Route 2 offers the option of going through the diglett cave, and diglett's are ground-type, which are vulnerable to Grass and strong against Fire, which finally begins to balance the scales.  Furthermore, when you get through to the Viridian Gym, you find he's... ground-type!  So all that suffering was worth it, your bulbasaur choice will win through in the end!

You can make up for your problems by carefully collecting new pokemon to deal with whatever local pokemon you're dealing with.  Turns out that you picked Bulbasaur and you're getting stomped all the time by Flying.  What can you do to fix it?  If you dig through the chart, you'll find that... Flying is weak against Rock!  So you find the first Rock-type, and as soon as you grab it, the next time you fight a damn Pidgey, you hit him with a Geodude!  Suck it, Pidgey!

This highlights two important things.  First, game balance is global, not local, while gameplay is lcoal, not global.  That is, grass might be fine overall, but it's not fine in a specific encounter, and you're playing in a specific encounter, in a specific situation, against a specific trainer.  Pokemon isn't rock-scissors-paper, or even rock-scissors-paper-lizard-spock, because those games are fundamentally random due to the fact that all options are equally valid and equally likely to come up.  Instead, Pokemon is Rock-Scissors-Paper-Lizard-Spock where in some games, two of the options have been removed, and one of the options has been given greater weight.  You need to master that specific fight, before you can go to another one, and in so doing, going from fight to fight, you slowly build up a complete picture of how the total,complete game.

The second important thing about Pokemon is that the game mixes geographical exploration with mechanical exploration.  The early Viridian areas mostly focus on the interplay between Ground, Bug and Flying. If you can find a Rock-type, you can beat both flying and bug, ergo, rock is the best.  But where you do go to find rock?  The Rock tunnel!  But going in there means you need to understand how Rock, Ground, Poison, Flying and most dangerously to all those Normal you've been picking up, Fighting types, work.  Gameplay changes from locale to locale, so the dynamics you face constantly change.

Once you've mastered the basics of the game, the game tests your skill by pitting you against highly specific and well-designed bosses... the Gym Leaders!  That's typical for interesting gameplay: "common encounters" are learning experiences, things that aren't necessarily very onerous, but require some skill to defeat and teach you something even in defeat.  The real tests, the chance to show how far you've come, is against some sort of boss.

GURPS Not-Pokemon

So, we get it, we need to create several interacting RPS cycles that are locally unbalanced while globally balanced.  We need to encourage players to understand the themes behind their chosen elements, which means understand the locations that feature them, the dangers those locations pose, the local cycles of those locations, the themes of powers/abilities that tend to show up with a specific element, how it interacts in RPG-cycles, and how to "grow" in that element.

We also need to have some activity that uses these cycles.  This is unstated in Pokemon, but that activity is combat.  If Flying beats Grass, it does it in combat.  Not in, say, a beauty contest (though I understand later games added that!) or in cooking, or when trying to get a girl to go out with you.

If we're playing a GURPS game featuring this sort of thing, we need a core activity.  The obvious is, again, combat.  We could envision a GURPS Dungeon-Fantasy-as-Pokemon, where different elements grant bonuses against particular monsters, who tend to congregate in particular lands or dungeons.  But we could just as easily expand out to something broader, such as infiltration, combat and social elements, borrowing from GURPS Action, or narrow things down to just a single thing, like Hacking (Arguably, Transistor has something similar to this, in a way).

Then we need some kind of collecting activity that represents the fruits of exploration.  If you are (or have access) to a grass-type.. whatever, and you're having a really hard time, you need the option of expanding your power-options to include something that will kick butt.  This might be new spells, or new hacking programs, or a new cybernetic module, or a new martial art technique.

But we want these to be more than just things.  A pokemon includes a type, and it includes attack abilities.  For example, there were no pure ghost-types in Gen 1 Pokemon (which is one reason why Psychic kicked butt).  And if you want Rock attacks, you need a pokemon that features rock attacks, which isn't always true of all rock-types.

But once we understand our elements and our those inclusive things that contain them, we can build a whole world around it: Challenges that feature and/or challenge particular elements, and locations that feature those challenges, as well as ways to access these elements, which grants additional powers or the ability to go deeper into the game.  What you create is a grand map, both geographical and mechanical, for your players to explore.

A GURPS Not-Pokemon Example: Heroes of Sigil Academy

Let's use Dungeon Fantasy as our core inspiration, but in addition to combat, let's focus on infiltration (thief-type abilities) and knowledge-gathering abilities (things like highly specific wild-card skills or divination or mind reading, or resistance to those sorts of abilities).

For our collection of traits, I suggest Alternate Forms in the form of Spirit Vessels from Thaumatology (starting on page 211), called "Sigils."  These represent the "faces of God"  or some such nonsense, the expressions of various incarnate mystical principles within yourself.  You can express only one sigil at a time, but you might have several possible sigils.  You can, furthermore, collect Sigils.  This might be Morph, with only so many "memorized" sigils, or you might allow players to have "modular alternate abilities", or you could simply allow players to trade out one alternate form for another provided they succeed well enough at a quest or what have you.

A sigil-form contains a theme or two (our elements), which also have accompanying stat bonuses and weaknesses (in the form of Vulnerabilities) and a power-set, including pre-designed powers, which the players can purchase.  As the players core abilities go up, the value of their maximum point value for all their sigil forms increase too, which means that when a character gains 5 character points, that improves his base form as well as all his Sigil Forms.

For cycles of elements, let's borrow some DF concepts and some typical Anime concepts: 
  • Magical which beats Primal which beats Psi which beats Magical
  • Holy, which defeats Necromantic, which defeats Infernal, which defeats Holy
  • Earth, which beats Fire and Lightning; Water, which beats Fire and Earth; Ice, which defeats Earth and Water; Fire which defeats Ice and Lightning; and Lightning, which defeats Water and Ice;
Then, of course, we can create interacting cycles, some interconnection between these three cycles. Psi is defeated by lightning, magic is defeated by earth and water, and primal is defeated by fire and ice, while psi defeats holy, magic defeats infernal, and primal defeats necromantic; Infernal defeats fire and earth, holy defeats lightning and ice, and primal defeats earth and water.  (This is just a quick, rough draft, I'm aware there are problems: building a map like this isn't done quickly).

We can thereafter build power-sets associated with these, and form-types, and locations.  For example, a swampy, primitive area might be full of Primal, Earth, Water and Necromantic types.  An necromantic might be a zombie. while a primal water might be a swamp dragon.  Nercomantic power-sets might focus on the death power-set, including the ability to inflict death on people (combat), raise up zombies, turn into a ghost (infiltration) and to know how a corpse died (knowledge). Earth abilities might include the ability to shake the earth or blast people with stone (combat), sink into the earth or turn into a rock (infiltration) or know what treads upon the earth (knowledge).  This primal tribal location might have secret "voodoo" powers your characters can learn.

Another location might feature ice, primal, magical and earth and be vast forests and mountains full of werewolves (primal/magical), witches (magical), kobolds (Earth) and wendigo (primal/ice).  Another location might feature fire demons (fire/Infernal) or teach how to curse people, or to raise the dead, or the secret of the death touch, etc.

Our heroes are members of the Sigil Academy, one teenagers who have the rare ability to master sigils, and are called sigil bearers.  They need to go on quests and defeat monsters or acquire artifacts or commune in locations or something to master a particular sigil set (designed by the GM based on a mixture of concept and element.  For example, the Primarctic sigil is an Ice/Primal Sigil found among dragons).  When they "change form" to use a sigil, they're still recongizably themselves, but they have a new set of features (change of clothes, hair color, glowing eyes, skin color, marks, etc) that denote the sigil that they bear.  They start able to bear a single sigil, but they can expand to contain up to 3 by buying additional "sigil slots."  They might also have character traits in their base form that carries over to all forms, such as a particular fighting style.

We might also give them magical weapons that can contain a single sigil or elemental power-set or something, that represents something unique to the character.  Thus the Staff Girl has 4 forms, but only one totally cool magical staff that's always (say) Earth/Magical, while the Sword Boy also has 4 forms, but always has a Holy/Fire sword.

The sigils can be collected, swapped out, changed, depending on where they go and what they need to do.  The game centers on understanding the interactions and building on their forms.  The multiplicity offers seriously interesting advancement opportunities, as players get to increase all of their sigil forms together.

And., naturally, in addition to going to dungeons in pursuit of cool new sigils, players will need to defeat other sigil-bearers, kick the butts of evil monsters, look for additional treasure (to pay for the enchantment upgrades on their signature item, and to get better general gear), and make sure they get back to their class on time, as well as have dopey, anime-style romances.


Games often work for a reason.  If we can ferret out the reasons, or some of the reasons, we can use that inspiration to build an interesting gaming framework.  By having an interesting framework, a world can practically build itself.  When you're done, you'll have an interesting thing for your players to explore.  Layer it with cool story elements and familiar activities, and you'll have a campaign your players will talk about for ages. Post it online, and you have a setting that other people can play for ages.

So, thanks Benjamin, for the inspiration, and the cross-pollination.  I hope you find this post as interesting as I've found your exploration of Pokemon.
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