06 Jan

Gym Design: Unconventional Challenges

muscle over mind

artwork by 弐河99℃

Last time I talked about Gym Design, I constrained myself to more traditional League format challenges. Nonetheless, the advice I gave there is just as applicable to unconventional Gym Challenges, which is what I’ll be focusing on for this post. For the purposes of this post, I consider a conventional Gym Challenge to be one where the Trainers on each side battle Pokémon to the last mon standing, and Trainers participate only through Orders and other League Legal Features rather than fighting directly. Most of the ideas and concepts here will still focus on combat, as I believe that’s a defining characteristic of a Gym Challenge as opposed to a Contest, Pokéathlon, or other (generally) non-violent competition. However, the goals and rules of the challenges will differ greatly from a conventional Gym.

As before, I’ll give example outlines at the end for Gym Leaders using the concepts developed in this post at the end so you can have a starting point or source of inspiration for your own campaigns. Do note, unlike the previous Gym Design post, you’re not supposed to try to incorporate every heading in this post into a single Gym! Most likely, you’ll just take one of the concepts and put your own twist on it.

Full Contact Battles

One of the most common formats I’ve seen for a non-traditional Gym Challenge is simply an all-out fight where the Trainers are participants and legal targets in battle. It seems like a simple enough change at first, but there are actually a couple of important issues to keep in mind when designing this kind of Gym.

Healing Items: Jumping in to heal your Pokémon with a Potion is obviously banned in a traditional Gym Challenge, but players may ask to use items during full contact fights. Even then, I would greatly limit or outright ban the use of restoratives and other healing items besides Snack items like Berries and Leftovers which are usually held by Pokémon.

Giving each challenger a standard suite of items for an encounter, possibly with restrictions on their use, is an easy way to handle this. For example, each Trainer might receive 1 Revive (can only be used on Trainers), 2 Super Potions, and 1 item of their choice chosen from the basic Status healing items for a fight. This allows challengers the extra healing they might need to compensate for how their Trainer needs to last the whole challenge, unlike their Pokémon, while also not dragging out fights with too much healing.

Other Consumables: While you don’t want your players to feel like they need to spend as much money as they’ll earn from a Gym Challenge to use items their strategies rely upon, you don’t want everyone in a party to be sporting a bag full of Pester Balls either. If someone’s heavily reliant on a certain kind of consumable item for their battling strategy, they’re likely crafting it themselves. Thus, a good way to limit these item is to have Gym provide a certain amount of Scrap used for crafting items for the Gym Challenge only. Similarly, you can simply allow challengers to bring in up to a certain monetary value in non-healing consumables.

Using the Gym Leader: The most typical full contact Gym Challenge is one where a Martial Artist or other combat-oriented Gym Leader rushes out the door with their team to fight the challengers. There’s one very obvious problem with this – putting the Gym Leader out there and vulnerable from the start of the fight can end in them being quickly KO’d from focus fire or a lucky crit. While a well-designed Gym can still be a challenge without the Gym Leader present, you do often lose a lot of the dramatic tension of the fight. Not only can you not use any special mechanics, Orders, or Moves designed for your Gym Leader, but you lose the opportunity for fun RP like banter and trash talking during the fight.

There are a few easy ways to combat this. First is to simply give the Gym Leader the same access to Revives and other restorative items to keep themselves going that the players have, within the same reasonable limits, of course. Second is to save the Gym Leader’s physical presence in the fight until later on, such as waiting until most Pokémon on both sides have been knocked out before jumping in. Gym Trainers can pick up the slack in the fight until that point. Another way to accomplish this is to turn the Gym Challenge into a “dungeon crawl” of sorts, with the Gym Leader and some of their chosen Pokémon as a “boss” at the end. Third is to have the Gym Leader participate in the battle in a unique way, such as fighting from inside a power suit or with a transformation such as an Usurper form, which can use a Boss Template.

Remember that the players’ Trainers are equally vulnerable during a fight, and try not to focus fire them all down too quickly. It’s better to have your Gym Leader fight a bit less optimally than to embrace tactics that make the fight less fun for your players.

Alternate Win Conditions and Mechanics

Basic Principles and Pitfalls to Avoid

And here we get to the meat of today’s post. By definition, it’s difficult to find constants to talk about in a wide variety of challenge types, but there are some basic principles that are easy to follow.

  • Don’t forget about the combat. In my opinion, it’s important to include combat in Gym Challenges to differentiate them from other forms of official competition in the Pokémon world. A Battle Contest or a race where you can try to knock off the other riders works well enough, but a pure Contest or race is better done in another event.
  • Avoid challenges that are too subjective in their judging. This is an easy pitfall to fall into when designing unconventional challenges. For example, avoid using a mechanic that depends on how awesome a player’s descriptions of their Pokémon’s attacks are. Using Battle Contest mechanics is one way to make this concept more concrete. Another example of a potential pitfall is a Gym Challenge where the challengers have to create and describe an artistic work using parts and materials being guarded by Pokémon – make sure before using such a challenge that the players have an easy way to gauge how they’re doing and there’s a level of objectivity in judging them. Having well-defined mechanics makes a challenge feel more fair and legitimate, which is important when it comes to Gym Challenges.
  • Similarly, make your mechanics clear and be sure they are unambiguously conveyed. Nothing is worse for a player than trying to play a game for which they don’t know the rules, so make sure they understand how they win and how they lose, as well as what their options are.
  • Keep it simple and focused. Sure, you could design a Gym Challenge where the players must race against the Gym Leader, collect treasures hidden in the course, touch the top of landmarks along the path, defend those landmarks from attack by the Gym Leader’s racers, and answer riddles every lap. But that’s a lot of complexity for a single fight, and the battle will slow to a crawl as players try to keep track of everything.

Area Control and Defense

One basic challenge that nonetheless delivers a different experience from the typical Gym is to have the players defend an area, structure, or other valuable target from enemies for a certain amount of time. Here are some examples:

  • A simple tower defense mechanic can make a “KO them all” Gym more tense and exciting. Not only do the players have to defeat all the enemies, but they need to do so before they reach a certain point. Give the players some resources to create a maze before the fight starts.
  • One fun Gym that zoof ran in Visiwa was based on Dota, where the challengers and Gym Leader each had a monolith structure to defend and towers to help out. Automated bots (creeps) streamed from each side and were the only way to damage enemy towers, forcing us to defend them as well as clear out enemy bots.
  • Similar to some battles in Pokémon Conquest, you can require the challengers to hold control of areas or flags. Designate special areas on the battle map, and a side is determined to have control of the area if they are the sole occupiers of the area for a full round of combat. Therefore, players don’t need to defeat all their foes, just keep them away from control areas long enough to pull out a victory.

Races and Obstacle Courses

Races aren’t just for Pokéathlons, though you’ll have to be careful to sufficiently differentiate your Gym Challenge from a simple footrace.

  • Anyone play Golden Sun? One fun idea for a race is to not make winning the race the entire fight but instead give the winner of the race a significant advantage in an arena fight in the form of extra items or buffs.
  • A more straightforward race can also be fun as a Gym battle, though a twist could be to make it a triathlon requiring a flying, land-based, and swimming mount for three different phases of the race. Obviously, this would best be saved for later in a campaign to allow players to accumulate all these Pokémon. Make sure to give plenty of opportunities to turn the environment against the other racers and attack them while racing.
  • Our very first Gym Challenge in Visiwa was an obstacle course zoof designed that ran us through a gauntlet of ice and fire. You can easily take this route rather than a direct race betrween the challengers and Gym Leader, where the goal is merely to make it to the end of the course.

Treasure Hunts

Players already have an instinct for finding and collecting macguffins in TTRPGs, so that’s another concept you can draw on to create alternative Gym Challenges.

  • At its most basic, you can treat this kind of challenge as a game of Capture the Flag. In order to win, one side must capture the enemy flag and bring it back to their half of the arena. Once picked up, a flag disappears if dropped on the ground or if the holder is Fainted. Passing off the flag is possible, but throwing it is not. Moves like Knock Off and Ally Switch become a lot more valuable than before. You may wish to create special rules for how to handle Moves like Phantom Force.
  • The challengers must successfully retrieve a number of macguffins from around the arena to win the Gym Challenge. Try to get more creative with this one, such as having the challengers steal eggs from the nests of sleeping Dragon Pokémon or performing a heist in a multi-level building.
  • A Bug Catching Contest could make for a unique Gym Challenge as well. Players must find and then capture certain rare Bug Pokémon that the Gym Leader chooses in a prepared arena within a time limit. Knocking out a Pokémon invalidates it for the purposes of the challenge, so players will have to take great care when attacking their quarry. This kind of challenge could give the Capture Specialist a place to shine in League matches as well. Of course, all the other bugs in the arena will be eager to chomp, slice, and sting the challengers into submission as they go about their hunt.

Puzzle Gyms

I’ll be honest – puzzles are not my specialty, and I rather dislike them in TTRPGs most of the time. That said, the archetypal “puzzle boss” is a pretty good fit for unconventional Gyms. Riddles or questions like those in Blaine’s and Clemont’s Gyms can go here as well, but they should be used carefully as should all puzzles. Players may be frustrated if they can’t answer a riddle or figure out a puzzle that they think their character is smart enough to beat.

  • A particularly sadistic Gym Leader uses a number of Type Synced Shedinjas with color-coding to help indicate what Type they are, and the challengers must shuffle through their teams looking for the right Typed attacks to combat them. This idea is taken from an encounter from Dox’s PokEtrian Odyssey campaign.
  • Fighting Pokémon in a Gym that take up different stances that make them vulnerable to certain types of attacks but make them invulnerable to other types or allow devastating counterattacks against other attacks could make an encounter more puzzle-like as well.
  • Battle Contests and other performances can be another way to incorporate puzzles into Gyms. Deducing what kind of performance the audience would be most receptive to, balancing battle strategy and Contest strategy, and guessing the Gym Leader’s next move in their performance can all make players think about more than just battle tactics during a fight without making the challenge too overtly like a puzzle.

Surprise Gym Challenges

Not all Gym Challenges should afford the players time for careful research and preparation. Sometimes it may be fun to have a Gym Leader allow challengers to register for a fight but tell them that they will come find them at an unexpected time to initiate the challenge rather than going into the fight right away.

  • One Gym Leader arranges for a fake heist or robbery to happen while registered challengers are nearby, with the environment carefully controlled to remove actual innocent bystanders.
  • For a campaign set on the high seas, one Gym Leader masquerades as a pirate and attacks the PCs’ ships in the middle of the night. Variants on this idea could include kidnapping the challengers in their sleep and bringing them to a haunted house, sending fake “assassins” to attack the hotel they’re staying in, etc.
  • One eccentric Gym Leader insists on only registering challengers for a fight at a shrine he’s constructed at the top of a local mountain. What seems like a simple trek is turned into a terrifying experience as they’re assaulted by wild Pokémon and struggle with the environment turning against them. Once at the top, the Gym Leader congratulates them on completing their challenge, rewards them with a Badge, and swears them to secrecy on the true nature of their Gym Challenge.

Example Gym Leader Outlines

A quick note – you should still use the ideas from my last post when designing unconventional Gyms, but here I’m going to focus on the atypical aspects of these Gyms rather than going over Signature Pokémon, Custom Moves and Orders, etc in great detail for each of them.

Marie Moreau, Treasure Diver

Classes: Athlete / Rider / Tidedrinker / Dancer
Battle Theme: The Lunar Abyss – Monster Hunter Tri OST, Yuko Komiyama
Signature Pokémon Theme: Moonquake – Monster Hunter Tri OST, Yuko Komiyama

Marie bought an old off-shore oil rig to remodel into her Gym. Over the years, she’s collected shipwrecks, parts of ancient underwater ruins, and other structures to pile underneath the rig for her Gym Challenge.

For her Gym Challenge, Marie hides a number of treasures (perhaps golden idols or chests full of jewels and coins – in any case it would be obvious when one has stumbled upon them) underwater equal to the number of challengers, and they must dive down with their Pokémon to retrieve them. It is a full contact challenge, and each challenger is provided with scuba equipment but is advised to bring their own aquatic Pokémon to the challenge as well. To win, they need to find all of the treasures and bring them back aboard the oil rig, and they lose if they are all defeated.

Challengers won’t spend the entirety of the challenge in the water, however. Many tunnels, ruins, and shipwrecks underwater open up into breathable caverns where the challengers can take a breather from swimming and let their other Pokémon see some action. Of course, whether in water or on land, Marie’s Pokémon will be hounding them and making sure it isn’t easy for them to find the treasures they seek.

Marie’s Signature Pokémon is Deus, an aggressive Gyarados with draconic qualities in place of the species’ usual Flying affinity. Confronting Deus directly is a foolish proposition, and Marie should warn everyone of that beforehand. He is hard to miss from a distance, even underwater, and so his role in the challenge is less to defeat the challengers head on and more to make certain areas of the arena difficult or risky to attempt to access at any given time. Challengers will have to adapt where they intend to search based on where Deus is currently patrolling.

Her other Pokémon can be any of the vast numbers of aquatic Pokémon out there, which makes adaptation an important skill for challengers taking her on. In the open air spaces of the arena, Marie will still favor Water Types such as Starmie and Jellicent, but she may mix it up with Pokémon that seem like they could be Water Type but aren’t, such as Malamar and Dragonair.

Marie herself will join in the fight, usually fighting while hanging onto one of her aquatic Pokémon. When defeated, she’s ferried up to the surface by her Pokémon at the first opportunity, though she has a small stock of Revives and Potions she allows herself to use in the fight to keep going.

If you create a Custom Move for Marie’s challenge, you can build it around the idea of using powerful water currents to move foes around the battlefield or make it difficult to enter a certain area. If you want to make the challenge even more difficult or you want to introduce puzzle elements to the fight, you can even have strong water currents always present in the arena but changing in direction and location at set intervals.

Of course, some level of handwaving is required for a Gym like this. Assure your players that their foes won’t be attacking their oxygen tanks, they won’t have to worry about depressurization, etc. When a combatant is Fainted, some of Marie’s Pokémon will quickly ferry them up to safety on the surface. It may be a good idea to provide challengers a couple of Revives shared among them, as having a crucial aquatic Pokémon Faint can be devastating in such a challenge.

Doctor Nikolopoulos

Classes: Clairvoyant / Warper / Medium (Black Magic) / Psychic Ace
Battle Theme: Long Dream – The World Ends With You OST, Takeharu Ishimoto
Signature Pokémon Theme: Philistine – No More Heroes 2 OST, MARU and Jun Fukuda

Christos Nikolopoulos is a dream doctor, and it shows in his rather unusual Gym Challenge. His Gym is a small and nondescript apartment in the center of downtown’s nerdiest shopping district, hardly the place one would expect a Gym Leader to hold epic battles. Doctor Nikolopoulos manages by sending this challengers and their Pokémon into a deep sleep and running his challenge in the Dream World.

There, his challengers are faced with a surreal nighttime city that would not look out of place in Giratina’s Distortion World. They will quickly learn that the normal laws of physics do not apply. Belief is enough to allow them to walk up the side of walls and traverse the alien environment, but skepticism or self-doubt will keep them rooted to real-world physics.

Doctor Nikolopoulos bases his dungeon-like Gym Challenge on Plato’s view on the structure of Greek cities and the soul. To win, the challengers must fight through the city and defeat three dream manifestations of himself representing different aspects of the soul and each residing in a different level of the city. Then they must defeat his signature Pokémon, a Meloetta who only appears after the three manifestations are gone.

Additionally, while in the dream arena, the players find they are bound by certain restrictions until they defeat Doctor Nikolopoulos’s manifestations. It’s possible to tackle them in any order with the use of Flying Pokémon, but the doctor will recommend they fight through the city from bottom to top.

Despite the concept for his challenge, Doctor Nikolopoulos is not a man to take himself too seriously, and the aesthetic of his dream arena reflects that. The surreal landscape and its inhabitants have a pastel look to them and are almost cartoon-like, with a modern touch that seems out of place given the ancient Greek inspirations. His artistic vision for the dream realm reflects the city around him, from cutesy anime figures to pop songs and culture.

The base of the city, where the challengers first find themselves, represents the appetites – desire for comfort, greed, and basic needs for survival. Here, the players will face Pokémon like Hypno and Shiftry, dressed like the laborers of a city and using Moves like Dream Eater and Giga Drain which steal an enemy’s strength. Until the challengers defeat the manifestation in this part of the city, they cannot regain Hit Points.

The middle layer of the city is for the warrior caste and represents spirit and competition. Pokémon that fight directly and aggressively, such as Gallade and Medicham, can be found here. Until the manifestation in this part of the city is defeated, the challengers may not increase their Combat Stages above 0.

The top layer of the city is for the intellectuals, the guardians who guide the city. It represents conscious awareness and rationality. Pokémon like Alakazam and Reuniclus control the battlefield from afar with a barrage of Status Moves and make it difficult to attack the manifestation that resides here. Until this manifestation is defeated, the challengers cannot Take a Breather.

The good doctor’s signature Pokémon is a rather unique Meloetta, though it’s a mystery to all but his closest friends whether the Legendary Pokémon exists in the real world too or if it is merely a dream construct he’s managed to create for the purpose of his Gym Challenge. It displays a different personality in each form, with its Aria Form named Hypnos and its Step Form named Thanatos. Hypnos is Fairy/Psychic, and Thanatos is Ghost/Fighting Type. Hypnos/Thanatos will immediately appear before the challengers upon defeating the third manifestation, and Hypnos has the Dreams Legendary Aura while Thanatos has Death. No one actually dies in the challenge as a result of the Death Aura, however. They merely wake up.

Sunny, Robotics Prodigy

Classes: Upgrader / Electric Ace / Mastermind / Cheerleader
Battle Theme: Waiting – Disconnected, Chipzel
Signature Pokémon Theme: I’m My Own Master Now – Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance OST, Jamie Christopherson

Sunny is a young genius and pioneer in the field of robotics whose fame and talent have earned her far too much money – and the clout to do very questionable and extravagent things with that money. Her hometown is sure to be filled with shops selling state of the art or experimental technologies, such as modified Porygon Upgrade items and cybernetic augmentations for Pokémon.

Her Gym is situated in a sprawling underground complex within the massive arcology that sits at the heart of her city. As the players venture through the lobby and past labs to reach the Gym, emphasize the eccentric and highly advanced nature of the scientific work being done here. If you need inspiration, a mixture of Aperture Science’s facilities from Portal and Sarif Industries from Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about how I envision this.

Sunny’s challengers must guide a giant robotic Pikachu through a mechanical maze while defending it from attack from Sunny’s PokéBots and Pokémon. It is a full contact challenge. They win the challenge if the Pikachu successfully crosses the finish line of the maze, and they lose if the Pikachu is incapacitated or all of them and their Pokémon are defeated. The robot has exactly two speeds – stopped and FULL SPEED FORWARD, and it isn’t exactly intelligent, making this challenge all the more frantic.

For the most part, the robotic Pikachu will travel down the path linearly, though there are three kinds of special light signals strewn throughout the labyrinth that the players can activate and deactivate to try to guide the bot. A green light signals the Pikachu to try to reach the source of the signal, a red one signals the Pikachu to try to avoid it, and a yellow light signals for the Pikachu to stop in its tracks entirely. Outside of that, the players have no direct control over the bot. If they want it to go down a certain corridor, they’ll have to find and activate a green signal down that corridor or activate red signals down the alternate paths.

Not only do the challengers have to contend with Sunny’s Pokémon, but the maze itself is designed for large robots in scale and difficult to navigate for someone human-sized. Adding to the difficulty, the players will often have to disable energy barriers, break down giant walls, and remove other obstacles from the Pikachu’s path. Flying Pokémon can help solve this problem for the players, but of course a robotics expert like Sunny is sure to make use of many Electric Types. Adding to that, some of her bots and Pokémon carry light signals that only deactivate when they are Fainted, which means a stray Emolga with a yellow light signal could keep the Pikachu bot frozen in place while other Pokémon beat down upon it.

Among her team of Electric and Steel Types, Sunny’s most fearsome Pokémon is a Luxray with heavy cybernetic augmentations. It keeps electrified blades within many compartments of its body, making attacking it in melee extremely dangerous (read as: Iron Barbs Ability), and its mechanical tail affords it the Wielder Capability. Its mobility is its greatest advantage, however, and it can easily outmaneuver the players if they aren’t careful.

Sunny herself doesn’t fight in the battle, though she has a floating platform she rides through the arena to give Orders.

This Gym concept very much toes the line when it comes to my “keep it simple” rule, so be careful if you borrow the idea to make sure the players understand exactly what is going on.

Discuss this post on our forums at this thread.