Artwork by pokemoa
Pokémon Tabletop United is a daunting system to GM, so naturally the other devs and I try to make our GMing chapter as robust and comprehensive as possible. However, we realize that having over 50 pages of assorted advice to read through can be dizzying, and a new GM may simply want to know what they strictly need to do to ready themselves for a first session in the system in a straightforward, step by step manner.
Well, here you go! This post will take a look at what goes into putting together an enjoyable first session of PTU. Anything that can be considered more general RPG advice for first sessions, such as how to cast out your first plot hooks or introduce engaging NPCs, will be glossed over at most. Instead, I’ll focus on PTU-specific issues and idiosyncrasies of the system.
I won’t drag this out. The GMing chapter covers this topic in much more detail when it comes to preparing a campaign world, ensuring you have potential plot hooks for all of your players, and more. Instead, I’m going to quickly outline two essentials for a minimalist start to a PTU campaign that will save you a lot of headaches down the road.
1. Discuss the tone and themes of your campaign. Will it be a cheery and light-hearted League romp? A more serious crime-fighting adventure? It’s a good idea at this point to directly ask your players what their expectations are when it comes to how Pokémon will act and behave, as well as how Pokémon are generally treated by Trainers when it comes to capture, battling, and everyday life. Are there ethical norms for captures? Is there a commonly accepted etiquette when it comes to keeping Pokémon out of balls in civilized areas? How is Pokémon ownership regulated? Answer these questions and more, and tell players not to be afraid to ask questions, even if they seem “stupid” to them.
This is one area where we’ve seen many players and GMs come to the table with different expectations that go unnoticed until suddenly blossoming into frustration and drama several sessions into the campaign.
2. Run through character creation, preferably as a coordinated group to ensure that the party has a healthy mix of both personalities and mechanical roles. Talk about in-character goals; it’s likely that characters in a Pokémon universe will have widely varied goals, from challenging the League, to vanquishing a villainous team, to simply catching ‘em all. You may need to work with players to ensure their goals all play well with the aim of your campaign.
And here’s the important bit: ask your players to explain why their characters will be invested and interested in helping each other accomplish their respective goals. Little is more frustrating in a PTU campaign than being the lone League challenger who ends up taking on Gyms alone or the only one who’s still interested in seeking out new and rare Pokémon to capture midway through the campaign when everyone has a largely fixed team. Nip any potential issues here in the bud rather than letting them develop.
Oh, and on a tangential but very important point: don’t have more than four players if you can avoid it. Even with an experienced GM and experienced players, having five or more players can noticeably slow the pace of combat, and having six or more is practically a guaranteed headache.
First Session Checklist
A first session of a tabletop RPG campaign is like the pilot to a TV show. It is the hook of all hooks and your chance to get your players excited and invested in your game. Every GM has their own idea of what they need to put in their first session, whether it be sudden and exciting catastrophe, enigmatic mysteries, or something else entirely.
In a Pokémon campaign, you may choose to begin with the Trainers receiving their first Pokémon from a Professor and running simple errands, or you may say they have had their Pokémon companions for a while now but are suddenly thrown into the midst of a Team Rocket attack. Regardless of your individual approach, there are a few common elements you will find in nearly every successful first session of PTU.
1. A Pokémon RP opportunity. It is incredibly important to establish Pokémon as characters and not simply tools of battle, especially when it comes to the players’ Starter Pokémon. Come up with a simple scenario like searching for a Professor’s lost Pokémon in the woods that will get Trainers working together with their Pokémon outside of battling. This is not only a good time to flex your roleplaying muscles and characterize each player’s starter, but it’s an opportunity to establish how interactions typically go with wild Pokémon in a non-violent context and to teach PTU’s Skill mechanics.
2. Combat. PTU is inarguably a system that is built on a foundation of tactical combat. It’s a Pokémon game, after all, so it would be surprising if no one is excited at the prospect of getting into a battle. You’ll be doing a lot of battling throughout a campaign, so you want to show it off and be sure everyone understands how the combat mechanics work. And of course, combat in the Pokémon world often leads into…
3. A capture opportunity. Players love catching new Pokémon, especially at the beginning of a campaign. It’s that simple. If you want players to go home after your first session eagerly looking forward to the next, the easiest way to do it is to ensure they have a chance to catch a new Pokémon that they’ll get to bond and battle with the next time you get together to game. This can be done through combat, of course, but don’t be surprised if your players try to befriend Pokémon without a fight. That’s perfectly valid approach as well, and you should try to accommodate it while making it clear it won’t work on everything. After all, the weaker Pokémon Trainers run into early in their journeys will act differently from the stronger wild Pokémon in more remote or dangerous areas.
When handing out stats for a player’s first new capture, be lenient when it comes to Nature and Ability choices. It’s a real buzzkill to get a new Pokémon just to realize that its Base Stat Relations make it really hard to use or that it has an Ability choice you don’t like. Rather than rolling for these, try to make sure everyone gets a Pokémon with traits that make them easy and fun to use.
PTU is also a system balanced around each Trainer having a team of Pokémon. Therefore, the quicker you get the party to the point they have one or two back-up Pokémon to use if their Starter faints, the easier your job will get when it comes to building encounters. Speaking of which, let’s talk about…
Your First Combat Encounter
One of the most commonly expressed difficulties we’ve seen with new PTU GMs is putting together the very first combat encounter of the campaign. This should come as a surprise to no one. Not only does PTU combat require more prep work than most systems, but extremely early game encounters don’t quite follow the same principles as normal encounters for one simple reason: Trainers only have one Pokémon rather than a full team to start. This means they have no safety net, and it’s easier to accidentally overwhelm them. You will have to be much more careful with how many combatants you throw at them. If you allowed your players to start with multiple Pokémon, then this issue doesn’t apply to your game, of course.
Here are step by step instructions for putting together a first encounter with the aim of letting players learn the system with an easy fight and also allowing most of them to capture a Pokémon. What kind of scenario leads to a battle is up to you, but a couple easy ideas are making the party run into a territorial group of Pokémon barring their way, having a group of wild Pokémon picking on another injured Pokémon, and having wild Pokémon steal something valuable from a Professor or other NPC which the players are then tasked to retrieve.
1. Pick out a number of interesting wild Pokémon equal to your number of players. If half or more of the party is focused on Trainer Combat, you can afford to add one or two more. When choosing Pokémon, try to avoid bland choices, like the typical route 1 rodents and birds, but also be careful not to choose Pokémon with powerful early Moves (more than DB 5), DB-boosting Abilities like Technician, or a lot of Type Advantage over the players’ Starters.
Take a look at the per-turn damage output that your players’ Starters can achieve, and try to aim a bit under that. For example, if none of the players’ Starters have Moves that gain STAB, then you might even want to avoid Normal Types altogether to start to avoid giving your enemies a damage advantage via having STAB Normal Moves.
Also try to avoid action-denying effects like Sleep, Paralysis, and Confusion. Those can be fun parts of battle strategy later on, but the ability to switch Pokémon is crucial to counteracting these effects. Besides which, no one enjoys being forced to skip turns in their very first battle.
Oh, and try to avoid Pokémon that can fly, unless you’re sure the party has plenty of ranged attacks or ways to make their melee fighters reach up in the air.
2. Stat out your chosen Pokémon at 2-3 Levels lower than the players’ Starter Pokémon. Don’t put too many points into Defense. As a last resort in fights that go south, beginning Trainers will often have to resort to joining in with Struggle Attacks, which will be weak on non-combat Trainers due to the lack of Attack investment. High physical damage reduction makes a desperate situation even worse.
3. Make a simple map. If you’re not using a map and grid in your game, just prepare a general description of the area. You don’t want to get too fancy here, especially if your players are all new to the system, but adding a bit of rough and slow terrain to avoid can ease your players into some of PTU’s movement and terrain mechanics.
It’s also a good idea to introduce a small environmental element or gimmick that becomes available if the players are doing poorly, which they can take advantage of to turn the tide in battle. For example, during an encounter in an abandoned urban building, a wild Shinx that’s been thrashing the party knocks over some trash, revealing dirty but unused and perfectly functioning Pester Balls that the party can use in a pinch. Or maybe it knocks over an oil canister no one realized was full, giving the party’s Torchic an opportunity to set a trail of oil aflame and draw a wall of fire between it and a few Pokémon closing in on it. Not only does this give your battle a self-balancing mechanism, but it teaches your players early on not to just think in terms of what’s on their sheet and to use the environment around them.
4. Run your battle! Be sure to spread your wild Pokémon’s attention between the players, and do not focus fire anyone. Again, these tactics are frustrating when someone has only the one Pokémon to use.
If chance and a series of lucky crits and unlucky misses cause the battle to swing massively in the favor of your wild Pokémon, keep the battle low stakes. Wild Pokémon, especially those which starting Trainers are likely to run into, won’t necessarily want to fight until everyone on one side is knocked out. In the case of Pokémon which have stolen a macguffin, they may simply take an opportunity to flee if they are winning the battle, rather than try to finish off the Trainers and Pokémon that attacked them.
5. Afterwards, give Trainers who didn’t have an opportunity to catch a Pokémon or didn’t see anything they wanted in the first encounter a chance to find more Pokémon they can befriend or attempt to capture. If you find it’s too much work to prepare combat stats for a few backup Pokémon, then you can focus on making a couple roleplay or skill-centered scenarios based on individual Pokémon the players might approach.
If all goes well, you’ll have run a simple and relatively stress-free battle to introduce your players to PTU’s combat mechanics, and they’ll come out of it with an exciting new Pokémon to play with. Don’t be discouraged if your players steamrolled this first encounter; I intentionally wrote these guidelines to make for an easier battle. You can always ramp up the challenge later.
Also keep an eye out for a later post where I’ll outline a few examples of good first encounters and what makes them work.
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