06 Dec

Campaign Seeds: Mysterious Ruins

arceus ruins

Artwork by トネコ@お仕事募集中

Hi Pokémon Tabletop fans! First of all, my apologies for the lack of recent activity. Most of it can be chalked up to the recent DDoS attack on ZetaBoards and my desire to wait until I was sure the situation had stabilized before making more content posts. Everything should be fine now – you may see some occasional hiccups accompanied by CloudFlare’s 520, 522, or 524 errors, but I haven’t seen one last for more than a few minutes at most in the past couple days. ZetaBoards just moved to using CloudFlare protection, and on top of that there are the usual issues in the aftermath of a DDoS attack.

That out of the way, let’s talk about today’s campaign seed theme. Ever since the Ruins of Alph back in Gold/Silver/Crystal, mysterious and ancient ruins have featured prominently in the Pokémon series and supplied some of the most interesting bits of lore to be found in the franchise.

Most traditional Pokémon campaigns will feature ruin delving at some point, perhaps as a side plot, but what about campaigns that are wholly built around ruins and perhaps the exploration of one mysterious ruin in particular? As we all know, the pedigree of tabletop RPGs in general is filled with a focus on ancient ruins and dungeon crawling, so I’ve tried my best to give these ideas an interesting twist or two.

1. Oran Valley

Premise: The players are normal farmers, innkeepers, breeders, and other everyday people making a modest living in their farming town. Or so it seems, anyway. This quiet farming town is built upon the ruined shrines of old and forgotten gods, and their influence slowly starts to return and disrupts the routine of life in the community.

Fishermen begin to dredge up ancient artifacts from the town lake, an earthquake opens up a chasm in the middle of town revealing a passage into a hidden cave, the town librarian is teleported by a group of stray Unown into a dimensional pocket filled with eldritch horrors. However it happens, the town is forced to confront the strange reality of the plot of land they occupy, and the townsfolk must bravely venture forth with their Pokémon partners to discover what lies beneath the surface of Oran Valley.

This idea is taken directly from Doxy’s old campaign of the same name, though placing a big of a heavier emphasis on the ruins and mystique of the town and its surrounding environs, rather than the social aspect of the game.

Central Themes and Conflicts: A strong theme of the original campaign Doxy ran was that every player had their own bit of investment in the town, in the form of owning a business or important location. This ensures that everything that happens to the town is personal to someone and that the players have a sense of relying on one another for everyday needs and a real sense of community within the town.

A crucial decision you’ll need to make with this campaign concept is the tone that you’re going for. A campaign where Giratina’s ghastly servants sneak into the town to whisk away the helpless and weak will differ greatly from one where a Manaphy awakens and demands in a tantrum that the town restore his ancient hot springs resort near the peak of the local mountain. A more whimsical and carefree campaign filled with capricious fantasy will usually fit better with the farming town atmosphere, but the contrast and dissonance brought by a more grim campaign can be interesting as well.

Possible Directions: Again, where you go with the campaign will be largely dependent on the tone you decide upon. In some ways, this campaign concept is best suited for a more static game where players enjoy the everyday life of a fantasy town without too much of an overarching plot, but that does not need to be how you handle it.

  • For a more grim campaign, perhaps the shrine beneath Oran Valley is only the first of many opening up around the world. After the PCs finish exploring the ruins beneath their town and purge it of the malicious gods’ influence, they set out to save the rest of the world from the encroachment of eldritch gods.
  • What happens when the outside world discovers what has happened in the town? The town could see an explosion in population that fuels many different directions for the campaign: a mercantile campaign where the PCs try to expand their businesses and new fantastical tourist attractions to best take advantage of the influx of immigrants, an Etrian Odyssey-esque campaign where the town grows into a city where the economy is based on delving into the ruins and bringing up loot to sell, etc.
  • The campaign could be done as a generational game, where after a period of time, the PCs settle down and have families, much like in Harvest Moon or Rune Factory, and the players take over playing their children in a new set of adventures.

2. The Apparatus

Premise: Ancient is a relative term, and the mechanistically named Apparatus would appear like anything but to our contemporary eyes. Whereas Oran Valley presents the traditionally expected ancient ruins of a historical fantasy setting, the Apparatus is an unfathomably large structure filled with incredible technologies left behind by unknown architects. No one alive has ever seen the outside of the Apparatus, and one can only speculate as to its size, their location within it, or the age of the structure.

One part mega-city, one part supercomputer, and one part constantly whirring machine and factory, the Apparatus is filled with myriad rooms and segmented regions, called Pods, where people and Pokémon make their homes. It’s not difficult to live a comfortable and lackadaisical life in a Pod. Cornucopia machines manufacture food and other basic necessities, and each Pod appears self-sufficient. The hints of influence from ancient AI can be found throughout the computer systems of the Apparatus, but the Administrator Porygons which control the functions of each Pod seem far too automatic to be true intelligences. Everything from the weather within a Pod to the way the Pod constantly rebuilds and renovates itself is controlled through direct democracy – an ancient computer network allows Trainers to register themselves to a Pod which gives them a voice in periodic votes that decide the day to day features of the Pod.

Freedom from basic needs doesn’t guarantee a utopia, of course. Social and intellectual currency develop in the absence of true resource scarcity, and humans can always find a fuel for their conflicts or a need to sate their curiosity. For whatever reason, the PCs find themselves venturing forth to explore and to bring back their discoveries for their Pod. Battling Trainers and researchers seek out new Pokémon species within the labyrinthine walls of the Apparatus, exile has replaced incarceration as the primary means of punishing transgressors in a community, and rumors abound of the return of true AI in the dark corners of the Apparatus and the strange forms they take on – those of Pokémon thought to be merely myth or legend.

Central Themes and Conflicts: Mystery and exploration play a strong role here, of course, though another subtheme of the campaign is simply how weird the social norms and community of this setting are. The lack of scarcity and the direct democracy and control over even factors like the weather in a community should emphasize the way that technology has changed the way society works. Funny enough, this makes some aspects of the basic Pokémon premise easier to stomach – free health care makes more sense in this world, and Pokémon battling as an all-consuming pastime makes more sense when traditional work and labor is not as needed.

Nonetheless, you should try to challenge some of the basic assumptions players make about Pokémon in a campaign with this concept. Modifying many Pokémon species to be more adapted to life in a technological mega-city is a good starting point, though you should also figure out what the role is of Legendary Pokémon. Are they truly just transhuman AI, as the last line of the premise might suggest? Is there something more to them and their origin, or perhaps the origin of all Pokémon. You could use the Apparatus to create a world where humanity manufactured Pokémon to eventually replace all normal animals, for example.

Possible Directions: At some point, you have to decide some concrete facts about the Apparatus and human existence within it, before players lose interest in the constant exploration and discovery of new and weird locales.

  • The players find the old AI masters of the Apparatus, and they immediately factionalize. AIs become patrons of chosen Pods and attempt to direct them to serve their own inscrutable purposes, possibly sparking rebellion or conflict between the Pods.
  • Everything within the Apparatus is a computer simulation or part of a virtual reality video game gone wrong, yet even after this unsettling fact is uncovered, no one knows how to log out or unplug themselves from the system. Questions arise such as the fate of those who die within the simulation – do they die in “real life” as well, whatever that may be? How are new people born? What are your Pokémon, if this is true? Do they really exist and have a body plugged into the system like you presumably do, or are they just parts of a game? Are you all really AI?
  • The Apparatus begins to slow and break down, reducing the number of livable Pods and causing diasporas all throughout the structure. What is causing this collapse, and can it be stopped?

3. Midnight City

Premise: When one thinks of ruins, they often imagine delving through it to find clues to its past and the way to piece together a story about the structure and its eventual fall and degradation. What if you discover ruins without such a stable history? Ruins that shift and rearrange themselves, that take bits of the past from all over and smash them together in a collected mess of human memory.

In this campaign concept, the Dream World of Pokémon holds one such place, and it has started to encroach on our normal reality in the PCs’ home city. Certain individuals, those who have always lived with unusually vivid dreams and nightmares, have discovered the ability to see the paths and passages to these ruins – and to step into them. The actual ruins themselves are made up of warped interpretations of places from the city’s past and locations infused with the strong memories of the locals and their Pokémon. In what is clearly not a coincidence, incidences of missing people have gone up sharply since this phenomenon began…

Central Themes and Conflicts: This campaign concept is obviously strongly influenced by the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, particularly the Persona series of games. Characters in this campaign will need to balance their everyday lives with exploration of the eldritch corridors they find within the Dream World, and it is probably in their best interests to keep their secrets the best they can as well.

Players will discover the history of their city as they explore the dream world, though they will have to sift through their discoveries to figure out what is fact and what is fiction. The secrets of the city and its more prominent inhabitants will come to light as well, and the players will need to decide what to do with what they learn.

Another possible option here is to have the PCs and other special individuals who can access this part of the Dream World be the only ones who have Pokémon, making a campaign much more directly similar to SMT and Persona.

Possible Directions: Why is this strange locale from the Dream World spreading itself into our reality? And what are the consequences? Players will ask those questions, and the answers will determine the course of your campaign.

  • A traditional villainous Team has been conducting experiments with Cresselia, Darkrai, and other dream-related Pokémon, with the intention of overwriting the PCs’ home city with a twisted slice of the Dream World.
  • A young and confused god like a newly born Mew, or a powerful alien entity like Deoxys has created this aspect of the Dream World as an attempt to understand humanity and its past. The god or entity does not quite understand consequence and morality the same way that most humans do, and it is a blank slate in many ways. The PCs find themselves in competition or cooperation with others who can reach the Dream World to “teach” this being through their exploration of the the dream ruins and how they interact with the history of their city.
  • The consequences for the emergence of the dream ruins are much more grounded and local. While the ruins may be filled with malicious nightmare Pokémon, the PCs brave those dangers not to save the world or solve a metaphysical plight but instead simply to learn more about the hidden secrets of the town to solve a mundane crisis in the real world. A small string of serial murders is happening, mirroring an unsolved case from decades ago, or a feud between two long-established families threatens to tear the community apart unless discoveries made about the town’s past can help resolve misunderstandings in the present.

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