21 Dec

Gym Design: Signature Elements

brock and misty

Artwork by BlueSoul

Sorry again for the delay! Holidays and all, I’m sure you understand. The next couple posts will come much more quickly, and I’ll try in the future to be better about warning when there’ll be more than a week between posts.

Good Gym Challenges are not merely difficult battles designed along a theme – incorporating distinct and unique elements is part and parcel of designing a memorable and compelling Gym Leader. The Pokémon Tabletop United core book already goes into this topic in broad strokes and covers some basic ideas, such as picking an interesting theme and making sure to present Gym Leaders as members of the community with roles and a personality outside of their League status, but here I’ll go into some more detail on some specific elements that help make for a memorable Gym Challenge, with two outlines for example Gym Leaders following the advice here.

I’m going to make a couple assumptions about your Gyms for the sake of this post.

First and probably most importantly, I’m assuming you’re running Gym Challenges as group fights rather than individual duels. It simply makes the logistical side of GMing Gyms much easier, and it also allows more room for creativity in encounter design – for example, the suggestion I’m going to make to give some Gym Leaders Boss Template Pokémon in their fights would be completely unworkable in an individual fight format. Some people like individual Gym Challenges, but I strongly feel this is one area where it’s best to give up on adhering to the source material for the sake of better tabletop gameplay.

Second, for now I’m going to focus on more traditional Gyms where the goal is simply to knock out the other side and Trainers don’t participate directly outside of Orders, switching, and other League-sanctioned Features. In future posts, I’ll definitely cover interference matches and alternative win conditions – and in fact most of these principles apply to those Gyms as well – but for now I want to focus on the basic format.

Alright, here we go!

Buildings and Arenas

The very first things you’ll describe to your players when they set off to challenge the Gym in town are the building the Gym is set in and the arena they’ll fight in, which makes it incredibly important to give a profound initial impression. More than just thinking about the mechanics of the environment and the Gym Challenge, think about how the arena reflects the personality and style of its owner and how you want to present that.

As with all vivid descriptions, you want to invoke all the senses, not just vision. The pleasant aroma of burning incense and the gentle give as the PCs step onto the aged wooden floor of a temple-styled Gym are just as important as the visual decorations and details. Portraying a small dramatic scene as the players enter is another great way to set the mood for what’s to come, whether it be the Gym Leader unceremoniously ejecting an unsuccessful set of challengers or the Gym Trainers finishing up a prayer ceremony.

When it comes to mechanics, try your best to never set a Gym Challenge on a flat and featureless plain. Even just a couple of hazards and environmental obstacles will do a lot to elevate the players’ engagement with the battlefield and thus the Gym Challenge as a whole. At the same time, don’t throw in meaningless gimmicks for the sake of doing so – make sure everything about the Gym ties together in one cohesive package. Finding a mechanical theme for the Gym and sticking with it helps a ton, of course. Figure out how your Gym Leader wins fights and what lessons in battling they’re teaching the players, then build the arena to suit those purposes. The sample Gym in the PTU core book is a great example of how to do that.

Signature Pokémon

Do you remember Whitney’s Miltank? Clair’s Kingdra? Korrina’s Lucario? We often best remember Gym Leaders in the video games by their most notable Pokémon or those that gave us the greatest challenge, and that holds true in PTU too.

Remember, Gym Leaders were once normal Trainers just like the PCs too. And in a given average campaign, the PCs will (or should!) find Pokémon companions with unique traits to add to their team. Type Shifts, Shinies, and other quirky Pokémon are sure to find their way onto a Gym Leader’s roster as well, and they can be used as the centerpieces of their teams. Boss Template Pokémon, giant and multi-part Pokémon, and even Legendaries can also spice up Gym Challenges, and the arena mechanics and other members of the Gym Leader’s team can be designed to synergize well with these monstrosities. Even with a more plain Pokémon, an extra Hit Point bar can ensure they last long enough to make an impact on the fight.

Picking a good signature Pokémon is not simply a matter of giving one special traits, however. Completely normal Pokémon, if given personality and portrayed well, can leave a powerful impression as well. I once helped one of my friends stat out an early Gym where a completely normal Girafarig tore the players a new one – it got affectionately nicknamed the Murder Giraffe, and it’s now the only part of that Gym I remember helping create. A Bellsprout, Larvesta, or other unevolved Pokémon with traits and Abilities that give it a potential edge over its evolved forms can also make for an interesting signature Pokémon.

Signature Pokémon also play the crucial role of giving players a preview of what they should expect in a Gym Challenge so they can prepare – when showing off a Gym Leader prior to their challenge, be sure to showcase their signature Pokémon and their battling style too. Two Grass Type Gym Leaders will give very different impressions if one of them disables a swarm of foes and slowly wears them down with their Vileplume and the other simply bashes through them with their Torterra or calls on the power of the sun to strengthen their rampaging Tropius. In some cases, however, you may wish to keep the signature Pokémon a secret in order to surprise the players.

Just as choosing a battle theme for a Gym is important for setting the tone of the fight, assigning a special theme to use when the Gym Leader reveals their signature Pokémon can enhance the experience as well.

As a side note, one convenient invention I’ve seen GMs use to justify their Gym Leaders using their trademark Pokémon against challengers of all skill levels is a Power Limiter item which adjusts the strength of a willing Pokémon in battle, essentially lowering its Level temporarily.

Custom Moves

Breaking the rules of what’s normally possible is always a good way to bring attention to a fight, and an unexpected and powerful Move can jostle the players out of their comfort zone in a tough battle.

When creating a custom Move for a Gym Leader, definitely worry less about making the Move balanced, but also don’t create a super powerful or gimmicky Move for the sake of it. Make sure whatever the Move’s effects are, they feed well into the Gym’s overall strategy and battling style. As an example using Nicolette’s sample Gym from the core book, I would not create a powerful damaging Ice or Ground Move for her custom Move. More likely, it would be an area of effect or hazard Move that helps control the battlefield with effects like Ice Ace’s Frost, or it would build off how Sandstorm and Hail slowly wear down the enemy team.

Try to search out effects that are unique and not already reflected in canonical Moves. Many of the Moves in Pokémon are really quite boring and just different versions of each other with altered Types and a couple of small changes in effect. Playing with mobility and other mechanics that aren’t really explored in the video games is the best way to create an interesting custom Move. Even better is if you can figure out a way to make a Move emphasize the synergy between the members of the Gym Leader’s team, putting the group battle format of Gym Challenges to their best use.

Items and Badges

One of my favorite ideas from the Pokémon Special manga is that Gym Badges hold innate mystical power. While this definitely doesn’t fit every setting, Gym Badges are an easy Held Item to slap any sort of custom effect on without having to worry too much about justifying them in terms of fluff.

Another useful approach with Gym Badges is to have them grant a certain trait that’s necessary for the Gym Leader’s strategy but isn’t present on all the Pokémon you want them to use. Immunity to Weather effects, Capabilities like Darkvision, and other effects that interact with the environment can allow a Gym Leader’s team to be more versatile than their strategy would normally allow. As an example, Nicolette’s Hippowdon in the core book holds her Badge so it can have immunity to Hail.

Gym Leaders and other League Officials in the PokéSpe manga use a variety of custom Poké Balls as well, and this is another place where you can give more personality to them. Koga’s shuriken Poké Balls and Bruno’s Poké Ball nunchaku both give them distinctive flair when they send out their Pokémon, and if you make a Juggler Gym Leader, then a modified set of Poké Balls can even be used as a terrifying central element of the Gym Challenge.

Personalized Orders

Custom Features are an awesome way to accentuate a Trainer’s battling style, and custom Orders are one of the best ways to do so because they have a presence in the actual game world. It’s one thing to simply announce the use of an extra mechanic you’ve made for a fight, but it’s quite another to have the Gym Leader call out an Order in-character and leave the players wondering just what they’re in for.

Orders also follow a format that makes them relatively easy to standardize, and having the Gym Leader teach a Trainer their personal Order can be great as an alternate reward for a player who might not have much use for a TM or an egg.

Don’t feel like you have to be restrained by the format of the common Orders in the book either. A personalized Order is like the Trainer equivalent of a Custom Move, so you should feel free to design something that is less universally useful or relies upon a specific battling style or condition that the Gym Leader specializes in. An Order based on Weather or a specific Status Affliction is too niche to see life in the core book, but for a Gym Leader it could be perfect.

Example Gym Leader Outlines

Lorekeeper Ephraim

Battle Theme: Battle Keeper – Homeworld 2 OST, Paul Ruskay
Signature Pokémon Theme: The Opened Way – Shadow of the Colossus OST, Kow Otani

Ephraim’s Gym reflects his pompous personality – he’s constructed a grand tower in the middle of the desert, and the trek to reach it may be as difficult as the challenge itself. His battling style is fast and furious, and he attempts to end fights quickly with his powerful Dragon Pokémon and offensive tactics.

When building Ephraim, use the Ace Trainer, Attack Ace, Dragon Ace, and Cool Trainer Classes. Between Ace Trainer and Features like Stat Link, Ephraim can quickly raise his Pokémon’s Attack to high levels without wasting time on non-damaging attacks and actions.

Arena: Drawing on power from a mystical artifact, or perhaps from a Legendary Pokémon, Lorekeeper Ephraim stirs the desert around his tower into a dangerous churning oven of sand. All Pokémon and Trainers standing on the ground Shift as if Slowed and lose a Tick of Hit Points whenever they end their turn standing in the sand.

Luckily for the challengers, he invites them to stand up on his tower along with him to watch and command the battle from above, and he calls forth a spiraling collection of floating platforms around his tower to allow their Pokémon to avoid the dangerous sands as well as reach his airborne Dragon Type Pokémon. Despite the perilous appearance of the battlefield, Ephraim designs his challenge for safety as well – magical winds buffet the entire arena, and they ensure that no one takes lethal falling damage in the course of battle. Instead, when a Pokémon falls a distance that would normally trigger falling damage, they lose a Tick of Hit Points.

Make a grandiose show of describing the desert swirling into flows of burning sand and regally decorated platforms rising out from the ground to form the battlefield. Lorekeeper Ephraim is a man whose history before “retiring” to be a Gym Leader has brought him in contact with powerful mystical forces, and he wants everyone to know this too.

Pokémon: Ephraim’s team is almost entirely composed of Dragons and dragon-like Pokémon who can fly. Salamence, Flygon, Aerodactyl, and Charizard are all likely candidates for his team, and they’re all built to maximize offense.

However, his signature Pokémon is quite different. Ruffles is a giant Trapinch the size of a whale who lives in the desert underneath his tower. When all the rest of Ephraim’s Pokémon have been defeated, the battle shifts into a quite different second phase as Ruffles emerges from the ground. She is quite capable of jumping up into the air to smash or devour the platforms the players’ Pokémon rely on for footing and does so each time she targets a Pokémon standing on a platform with a damaging Melee attack. Anyone standing on a platform when it’s destroyed must make an Acrobatics check with DC equal to the 5 plus the Accuracy Roll of the attack to attempt to jump to another platform within their Long Jump distance.

Ruffles is statted as a Boss Template Pokémon with a number of Hit Point bars and actions equal to the number of players taking on the Gym Challenge. She is immune to becoming Stuck and the effects of the hot desert sand, and she is presumed to be able to jump into melee range of any target flying around the tower or standing on its platforms.

Given the right campaign and setting, you could also replace Ephraim’s signature Pokémon with a Zygarde, giving further credence to his role as a liaison to Legendary Pokémon.

Custom Move: Ephraim reserves his custom Move until he shows off his signature Pokémon. The Move is not only difficult to defend against, but it allows his Pokémon to steal their opponents’ strength, keeping the momentum of the battle on his side. He will use a PP Up and Command Versatility to ensure Ruffles or his Zygarde can make the most of this Move.

Move: Devour
Type: Dragon
Frequency: Scene x2
AC: 2
Damage Base 10: 3d8+10 / 24
Class: Physical
Range: Melee, 1 Target
Effect: Devour ignores the effect of Moves with the Shield Keyword and cannot be Intercepted. Choose one effect:

  • The target loses an additional Tick of Hit Points, and the user gains one Tick of Temporary Hit Points.
  • The target loses one positive Combat Stage, and the user gains a Combat Stage in the same Stat.
  • The target loses a Coat, and the user gains that Coat.

Items: Ephraim’s Badge depicts his tower in the desert with a pair of draconic wings spread out from behind it. It grants the user an Initiative bonus equal to their Attack Stat divided by 3 and the Moxie Ability whenever they are under 50% of their maximum Hit Points.

Personal Order – Blitzkrieg
Scene x2 – Standard Action, Priority
Target: A Pokémon under your control
Effect: The target may immediately take its turn as Priority, Command Actions permitting, and is cured of Slowed, Stuck, and Trapped. If the target lost the use of any Movement Capabilities due to effects such as Smack Down, they immediately regain them. The next damaging attack they make this round applies the Shaken condition to all targets if it successfully hits. Shaken foes suffer a -2 penalty to their Accuracy and Evasion, and Shaken may be removed by Taking a Breather or being recalled.

Malvina Lorenson, Reformed Assassin

Battle Theme: Apocalypse – Hitman: Blood Money OST, Jesper Kyd
Signature Pokémon Theme: Mirage Coordinator – Umineko OST, zts

Malvina runs her Gym in a sprawling underground complex built to resemble ancient catacombs. Her Gym Challenge obviously reflects her background in subterfuge and assassination, but it also has themes of retribution and the karmic costs of violence. Her Pokémon’s movesets are littered with Moves such as Destiny Bond, Memento, and Retaliate which impose a heavy cost to fainting her Pokémon, but they also have the tools to quickly and quietly eliminate foes that they catch out of position.

When building Malvina, use the Hunter, Dark Ace, and Mastermind Classes. She excels at having groups of Pokémon perform coordinated attacks on vulnerable targets through a combination of Mastermind’s multiple Orders and Hunter’s use of Teamwork and Pack Hunt.

Arena: The Gym Challenge occurs in a series of narrow and branching corridors, only dimly lit by periodically placed torches. Darkvision, Blindsense, or an external source of light such as the Glow Capability will be necessary down many paths to avoid being Blinded. Every time a Pokémon faints, whether it be hers or one of the players’, a number of torches go out, plunging the arena deeper and deeper into darkness as the fight goes on.

As with Ephraim’s Gym, challengers are elevated to a platform above the arena along with Malvina to oversee the battle, but they are still limited in vision by their Pokémon’s ability to light up the arena or communicate when they see foes lurking in the shadows through Darkvision.

Pokémon: Malvina’s Pokémon team is armed with superb stealth, darkvision, and other tools that make them incredibly dangerous in the shadowy hallways of her Gym arena.

Her signature Pokémon is Balder, a Type-Shifted Ghost/Fighting Gallade. Outside of her Gym, Malvina might show off Balder by having him use Type-Shift-acquired Capabilities such as Shadow Meld and Invisibility to sneak up on and stealthily take out foes.

In addition to gaining Ghost Type Moves such as Shadow Claw and Phantom Force in place of Psychic Type Moves like Psycho Cut and Stored Power, Balder has replaced the more Psychic-associated Abilities like Synchronize and Telepathy with Pressure and Fade Away. Like much of her team, Balder may wield Moves such as Grudge, Memento, and Destiny Bond, ensuring that even in defeat his mark is left on the battlefield.

Custom Move: Malvina’s custom Move reflects the retributive aspect of her Gym’s theme, and along with the dimming lights, it helps create a greater sense of danger and tension as the battle goes on.

Move: Karma
Type: Dark
Frequency: Scene
AC: 2
Damage Base 8: 2d8+10 / 19
Class: Physical
Range: Melee, 1 Target
Effect: As long as the user knows Karma and is actively Commanded, they gain one Doom Token each time an ally is Fainted by a foe’s attack or Status Affliction. Karma’s Damage Base is increased by +2 for each Doom Token on the user. The user may not have more than 3 Doom Tokens. If Karma misses or otherwise has its effects negated, its Frequency is not expended. When the user successfully hits a foe with Karma, they may spend Doom Tokens (damage is adjusted for number of tokens first) to buy the following effects for one Doom Token each:

  • The Weight of Sin: The target is Trapped, Slowed, and Suppressed.
  • Paralyzing Rancor: The target is Stuck until the end of their next turn and may not Take a Breather while the user of Karma is on the field.
  • Memento Mori: The target gains a Perish Count of 2.

Items: Malvina’s Gym Badge has a design depicting a blackened knife set against the backdrop of a golden lantern. It is a Held Item that grants the Darkvision Capability and causes the holder’s attacks to inflict the Bleed condition on 18+. Pokémon affected by Bleed lose a Tick of Hit Points at the end of each turn in which they took a Standard Action. Bleed is removed at the end of a Scene, when a Pokémon is recalled, or when the affected target Takes a Breather.

Additionally, all of her Poké Balls use a custom Case called a Shroud Case. Pokémon released from a ball with a Shroud Case have a Coat that creates a shadowy mist obscuring their form. Only their general size category (small, medium, large, etc) is discernible, and the Coat is destroyed when they are hit with a damaging attack or when they use a Shield keyword Move or similar effect like Dodge or Fade Away to avoid the effects of an attack.

Personal Order – Assassin’s Edict
Scene x2 – Standard Action, Priority
Target: A Pokémon under your control
Effect: The target’s next damaging attack this round gains the following bonuses against Flanked, Tripped, and Blinded foes:

  • The attack ignores all Damage Reduction and half of the foe’s Defense or Special Defense, rounded down.
  • If the foe is Flanked, they may not apply Evasion to the next attack against them by anyone currently Flanking them. This does not include the target of Assassin’s Edict.
  • If the foe is Tripped, they are Slowed and must spend a Standard Action rather than a Shift Action to get up from being Tripped.
  • If the foe is Blinded, they become Tripped (this does not trigger Assassin’s Edict’s effect if they were not already Tripped) and lose a Tick of Hit Points.

Discuss this post on our forums at this thread.