01 Jan

GM Advice: Keeping Starter Mons Special

fire types

Artwork by sumikarasu

Happy New Year, everybody! And what better post for a time of new beginnings than one talking about starter Pokémon, a crucial element of opening a Pokémon Tabletop United campaign? Before I go on, I should note that the issue this post addresses definitely does not come up in all campaigns, but I’ve seen it enough through a long history of Pokémon tabletop campaigns to feel it warrants a post.

Starter Pokémon provide a crucial foundation to beginning Trainers and should be defining members of a Trainer’s late-game team too. They are often their Trainers’ most steadfast companions, the ones most likely to risk their lives for their Trainers – and in return the ones their Trainers will take the greatest risks to save. Specialist Trainers choose starters based on their battling styles, and even those who start their journey as generalists often find their starting Pokémon plays a big role in choosing how to grow and specialize later.

Unfortunately, starters all too often find themselves outclassed by carefully bred, Shiny, or other rare and special Pokémon such as Legendaries that Trainers befriend or capture in the course of a campaign. This puts players in a tricky position of having a Pokémon they’re very attached to from an RP perspective but which may not perform up to par mechanically – or worse, which feels dull and mundane from a fluff perspective despite reasons for in-character attachment.

This happens more often in campaigns where GMs work hard to give the players opportunities to find special Pokémon with unique traits, but that by no means suggests that GMs shouldn’t do that. The solution isn’t to diminish and exclude Pokémon ideas that may be more interesting than a baseline starter but instead to work hard to keep starters relevant and to develop them throughout a campaign. Read on for my tips on doing so!

Building Starter Pokémon

Let’s start from the beginning – when players are choosing and building their starters as they create their characters. A lot of this will be obvious and/or redundant with what the core book says, but my desire for thoroughness and the more-than-occasional instances in which I’ve seen some of these guidelines ignored compels me to repeat myself.

Do let players have full control over building their starters. Little is worse as a player than rolling a bad Nature or Ability for your starter that makes them difficult to use properly, clashes with your build, or gives your starter traits that run counter to the fluff you had planned.

Do give starters small bonuses such as an Inheritance Move List. Many Pokémon species simply aren’t very good without Egg Moves being made available. A GM will often find they need to add Inheritance Moves to wild Pokémon players catch to make them viable, or their players are dead set on breeding Pokémon for the perfect set of Moves. Obviously, a starter Pokémon without an Inheritance list is going to fall behind and be at a disadvantage. Inheritance Moves are also a fun way to personalize a Pokémon, so it’s well worth your time to work with your players about which Moves are appropriate for their starters. Some Pokémon don’t have Egg Moves, but you can draw from Tutor Moves instead, though you’ll have to be more careful to keep everyone on equal terms when it comes to Move choices.

Do encourage players to come up with interesting fluff traits and quirks for their starters. Perhaps their starter Pokémon has scars from a past run-in with a villainous Team, or perhaps they have peculiar habits such as collecting crystal shards. These are fuel for your characterization of their Pokémon as well as for the development ideas later on in this post.

Don’t allow players to start with particularly rare or powerful Pokémon. Starting players with rare Pokémon like pseudo-legendaries isn’t the way to solve the problem of starters being overshadowed later. It simply creates a new problem that there’s nowhere to move up in terms of finding rare and interesting Pokémon when you start with a rare species. The abandoned factory off to the side of route 1 infested with Solosis, Koffing, and Shinx is probably a lot less awesome if you started out with a Larvitar or Dratini instead of an Oddish or Ralts.

Don’t start players with Shiny Pokémon. This follows logically from the previous remark – normal Pokémon are a lot less appealing when you start off with something super special, and it devalues special Pokémon and makes finding them later less impactful as well. It’s also simply narratively odd for everyday Trainers to start off with Pokémon that are already extraordinary or unique right off the bat. I’ll talk about ways starters can be made more unique during a campaign later, but at the start of the game they really shouldn’t be too out of the ordinary.

And for the love of Arceus, don’t have players make rolls to see if they can start with a Shiny. Frankly, I think it’s a terrible practice, and I’m not sure how it became so popular. Even putting aside potential balance issues, even if you manage to balance a Shiny perfectly with a normal Pokémon, even if you make the Shiny worse than the normal starters, you’re still personalizing a Pokémon for a player more than the others and giving them something that will feel more unique. At worst you provoke bitterness and envy before the game even starts, and at best you make it harder for yourself to give everyone’s mons equal attention, characterization, and distinctiveness in the crucial early stages of the game. Just don’t do it.

Growing and Developing Starters

Alright, now we get to the real meat of things. Everything I’ve said above points you down the path of giving players relatively average Pokémon to start – but average Pokémon that are as well suited to their player’s wishes as possible and with room to grow, hence the Inheritance Moves.

Still, there is more work to do here. “Average Pokémon with decent egg moves” is about par for the course for many GMs when it comes to everyday captures they hand their players, and it also compares unfavorably to rare Pokémon or any sort of special Pokémon. A starter should grow into more.

Create character arcs for starter Pokémon. One common element when players reminisce about memorable Pokémon is an exciting capture story or tale of how they met the Pokémon. You simply don’t get this with starter Pokémon, and no matter how detail you put into the history of your Trainer and their starter, a written backstory can’t compete with actually playing through sessions where you capture a wild boss Pokémon just in time to stop a party wipe or where you meet a unique and quirky Pokémon in its home and help it through a crisis before it asks to come along with you. You will remember better what happens in the game and what you experience while playing compared to what you establish before the game begins.

This is where you draw on the quirks and hobbies your players gave their starter Pokémon. If a player rescued their starter from a Team Rocket facility, have them run into other captured Pokémon from the same batch as their starter and give them a chance to save their starter’s friends together. A starter Pokémon can have long-lost friends it’s seeking out, a collection of some sort it’s trying to complete, and other personal goals and wishes like any character in an RPG, and if you turn these into a memorable personal arc for the Pokémon, it can take the place of a neat capture story. These arcs also provide convenient excuses to give a Pokémon special rewards and upgrades, which I’ll get into now…

Introduce special qualities for starters at narratively appropriate times. While starters shouldn’t begin with unique traits and properties akin to Shiny Pokémon, they can certainly develop them over time. Depending on how heavy your campaign is in special Pokémon, this can range from something as simple as developing a custom Move or Ability for the starter in question to having full-blown Type Shifts and other big changes during a dramatic evolution at the end of their personal arc. Try to tie this event and the nature of the change to the player’s actions and choices too – giving them some control will make the special qualities even more personally satisfying.

This is a good time to make tweaks and corrections if the direction a player decided to develop their Trainer makes their starter Pokémon less useful for their battling style or usual MO. For example, a player who creates a Martial Artist intending to make a standard bruiser later decides they want to be sneakier and goes into the Rogue and Ninja Classes to do so may find their starter Ralts, now a flashy Gallade, isn’t quite as useful for their stealthy antics. Telepathy is useful for an infiltrator, but a mediocre Stealth Skill and disposition towards straight up fighting doesn’t help.

A Type change to Ghost or Dark, the addition of Capabilities like Stealth and Phasing, and swapping or customizing some Abilities and Moves to emphasize infiltration and perhaps taking advantage of teleportation to get into hard to reach places or to take foes by surprise could personalize their starter and keep them relevant to their Trainer’s new approach. NPCs like Gym Leaders can often facilitate some of the more drastic changes like offering Type Syncs, as well as pointing PCs in the right direction when it comes to giving their Pokémon personalized training, if the events of a personal arc aren’t enough to justify the changes you’re going for.

Create custom Held Items or Mega Evolutions for starters. In the times when it’s not dramatically appropriate to give a starter Pokémon a drastic change at the end of an arc, you may give them a special Mega Stone or other Held Item as a more immediate reward while starting to put bigger changes into motion for later. Try to keep these more interesting than the generic Held Items available to everyone – custom Abilities, upgrades to Moves and Capabilities, and effects that resemble Trainer Features are all good ways to go.

Avoid introducing a Shiny or special instance of a player’s starter species that may overshadow them. This is a big faux pas, and while I haven’t witnessed this personally, I’ve seen GMs come very close. In particular, a player in the very beginning of one campaign captured a thoroughly average version of a Pokémon they wanted for their final team and intended on using a Type Sync on – the GM responded that they may as well wait for a Shiny which may be available later, and that really killed the player’s enthusiasm for the Pokémon until some further discussion was had about the issue. Sure, it may be realistic by the balance of probability that somewhere out there in the world, a more special, unique, and interesting version of any given Pokémon on a player’s team exists. But you don’t have to bring that to the forefront as a GM, and you certainly shouldn’t do it to someone’s starter.

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