Or How I Bait-and-Switched My Players SUPER Hard
Today’s post is a guest article from KamenWriter, who was a member of the PTA dev team since early in the system’s life and has contributed a lot of help to PTU as well.
“Over There!” AKA World War One Pokémon, was a short, two-month-long campaign which took place in Europe, 1917, in the midst of the Great War.
The world is one just like ours, with the same history, landmasses, and names for anything. The only difference is that this world has Pokémon where our world has regular animals, and they have a way to train the creatures to fight alongside them. As the game begins, two trains filled with soldiers and their Pokémon roar along the tracks, one filled with Allies heading east towards the German front, and another heading in the opposite direction, originating from Berlin, Germany carrying Central Power soldiers.
Suddenly, there is some kind of anomaly! A sudden surge of power, and the players find themselves suddenly alone on the train, except for a strange man in cobalt blue military garb, wearing a bright red poppy where his medals would be. The man disappears, and the players suddenly find that outside the window there is another world altogether. The two trains, one heading east and the other west, find themselves on the same track, roaring uncontrollably towards one another. There is a crash! The players are plunged into darkness.
When they awake, they are in a thick woods where just a moment ago there was a wide plain. On the two trains, two enemy factions are suddenly face-to-face, and are forced to survive being stranded in unfamiliar territory.
That is how Over There! Began. Probably one of the biggest bait and switches in PTU history. I approached my players with setting details, and was light on the actual content until the first session, where they were whisked away to an unfamiliar territory and forced to fight for their lives. The twist was that the most powerful of the legendary Pokémon hand-picked these soldiers, an American nurse, a Russian spy, an experienced German airforce pilot, a top-secret Psi-ops candidate, and a young German man fighting for what he believes in, in order to put them through a trial by combat to decide the fate of the human race.
And The Bait and Switch
The players built their characters for a World War One campaign, and found themselves forced into a survival-based one instead. It was probably a dick move, and I shouldn’t have done it, but it worked from a thematic standpoint. These were soldiers used to fighting human wars, suddenly forced into combat against a supernatural enemy, one they were completely unprepared for. Letting them build their characters under the wrong assumption, while it definitely risked alienating the players, made for an intriguing opening to the campaign, and successfully alienated the characters from anything they knew before they were abducted.
The structure of the game was a sort of camping simulator. They were given an abandoned village to set up their base in, and every night, Pokémon would attack. Their job was to prepare for each night’s attack, while also exploring the boundaries of the area they found themselves in. With each in-game-day that passed, they learned a little more about their situation, and a little more about their surroundings.
Eventually, it came out that their task was to defeat the four “Generals” of the higher power who wanted humanity destroyed. The terms were to defeat the four generals. If they could manage that, they would be freed and humankind would be saved. If they were defeated, then reality would be rewritten, so that humankind had never existed. In and among the fighting, other legendary Pokémon would visit the arena apart from the four generals, some to ally themselves with the higher power, some as neutral powers, and some to ally themselves to the humans.
Once the players are successful, they will be allowed to meet their benefactor, the Pokémon who spoke up on their behalf in the face of the higher power. However, they realize soon after that this Pokémon has ulterior motives, and are forced to defend themselves against their former savior.
Cait Wilhelm is a young field nurse who wishes she could have enlisted in the military in a combat role. She chafes against her pampered upbringing in a rich household, and she was taught to be a tough scrapper by her old-world Scottish father. Almost as soon as she arrives in the other world, she puts on a pair of pants (Gasp!) and begins to assert herself in front-line combat.
As the campaign went on, it was revealed that most of the legendary Pokémon know about her through her family, since her parents were two characters from an earlier campaign which dealt with helping out a series of legendary Pokémon being captured and forced to cause chaos. There was a minor running detail where legendaries they would talk to would casually talk about her parents, whom she would rather stay quiet about, as she wanted to make her own way in the world.
Ivan Grigorovich Samka
Ivan is a Russian spy heading towards Germany. He is a deeply cynical person, made harsh by the iffy conditions in Czarist Russia. His specific politics weren’t particularly known, as he was private and withdrawn with the rest of the party. Even so, he was useful, being that he was the only one who built himself with stealth in mind, and could therefore scout Pokémon-infested territories and figure out new areas.
Domo was probably the player most annoyed by my bait-and-switch, and he will be the first to tell you (Over and over again) that he was glad that Ivan was so effective at trivializing many encounters. I don’t think I ever did land a decisive hit against Ivan in any of the major encounters.
Karsten began the game bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and idealistic. He was the peacemaker of the party, friends with everyone, and ended up being the glue that more or less held the party together. Considering the party was basically designed to be intentionally antagonistic towards one another, it was wonderful to have someone in there whose job it was to be good cop.
Naturally, this is a war game, so Karsten couldn’t get away with being an idealist through the whole game. He ended the game humbled, disillusioned in his country, and with horrible knowledge of the future of Germany. However, completely by chance, Kain chose to name his character “Blum” which, as it happens, was the last name of my character in Aeros’ Space-era game, Leo Blume, also the party medic. Therefore, almost instantly the head-canon became that Karsten was Leo’s distant relative.
Rüdiger von Geschwätz III
Rüdiger was a cocky German airman who was decorated for battles in the Ottoman Empire. He began the campaign as something of a blowhard, puffed up on his own achievement. You can understand why he fell the furthest.
As the campaign went on, Rüdiger kept making silly decisions, thinking he could handle anything, and he paid for it. After he went off on his own to raid a cave full of paras’ guarding psychedelic mushrooms (The setting’s equivalent to TMs) he was defeated, and left to an unknown fate. It was discovered later that he was given to Jewel Beedrills, a horrifying variant on the familiar Pokémon which lays its eggs in the abdomen of its victim. Needless to say, Rüdiger ended the campaign a much, MUCH humbler man.
OH GOD GET IT OUT OF ME!
Elsa is a top-secret experiment by the Germans to develop human beings with psychic powers. The process has left her cold and calculating, and detached from her country. She has also had a rough youth, and the only time cracks appear in her cold demeanor is when anyone calls her a witch. Her personality contrasts with her powers, which, as they developed, turned out to be fire-aligned.
Her main business in the campaign ended up being long, intimate conversations with the enemy “General” Pokémon, Terrakion. She ended up eventually winning him over to her side.
The thing I’m most proud of from a gameplay standpoint was the structure and gameplay flow of the campaign. When I started the campaign, I knew I wanted it to last at most a month (Although it ran two months) since I’d run and played in long games before, and I didn’t have the time to start another one. I wanted it to move.
Forgive the terrible MSpaint hack job.
My strategy as GM was to draw up the map where the players could roam (Crossing the north or south borders of the arena caused the player to loop around to the opposite side, Final Fantasy World Map style), and placed events on the map in the general order of what I expected the players to do. It was set up so that the forest area or the mountains would be the first areas they would explore, thus fighting either Terrakion or Virizion first. They would also, if they traveled to the river, be introduced to one of their sub-objectives, when they find a damaged bridge they need to cross later to get to Cobalion, who is set up as the last of the four “Generals”. As long as Terrakion and Keldeo were active on the map, the bridge would always be destroyed the next day, and they didn’t have enough time in the day to finish the bridge while also being able to cross it, unless they wanted to explore after dark (Which was dangerous, as Pokémon were more active at night). Keldo was set farthest away from the players, so the players would have to search for him, and in the meantime come upon other events I’d sprinkled on the world map. Every day the players could do three things, one thing in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening, and at night the attacks came.
Because they were attacked every night, and because time and their fortification was a limited resource, it forced the players to hurry to complete their objectives. If they were dragging their feet, random events could be triggered to force them to hurry along. If they took too long with Keldeo, he could flood the camp, and every evening Virizion was active, the forest growth (Which marked the beginning of “Enemy” territory) encroached a little further on the town’s borders.
The players took to the structure of this game fairly well. They kept their camp up, and I was able to teach them the rules of engagement through gameplay, rather than completely through exposition (Although I did have Celebi there as an exposition fairy to give lore when needed). If anyone not specced for it explored alone, they suffered for it, like when Rudiger was abducted by Jewel Beedrills and had Weedle eggs implanted in his abdomen (He got better). As it happened, they fought Terrakion first completely by chance on day three (Of 12 total in-game days) when they decided to explore the northern caves.
Because I wanted to run a short game, and because the gameplay was totally going to favor careful play rather than running in Pokémon blazing, I made sure to give out levels like candy so they could feel safe going out into hostile territory. The level curve was very steep. Players started at level 5 and ended up around level 26 or so, all in the span of 17 sessions. I later came up with a lore reason for their fast growth, as I’ll talk about when I talk about how I built the lore. You can track exactly how I doled out exp here, with handy explanations of what they did to earn it.
Believe it or not, Over There! Was actually a sequel campaign to another campaign I had run a few years ago in PTA. It was a Wild West game, taking place around the turn of the century in the United States, involving the players heading west to California to start their new lives, and coming upon a conspiracy to use Master Balls to control the continent and fulfill an extreme version of Manifest Destiny. It was a success, and it was also my very first campaign as a GM ever.
Not only that, but one of my players, Aeros, ran a game which took place in a far-flung future. Since the games were running at the same time with several of the same players, and since Aeros and I were both in one another’s games, we decided that our games were canon to each other, and had a lot of fun with it. Over There! Was meant as a minor continuation of that Shared Universe experiment, and did some work to explain some things that happened in the Future game, while featuring a lot of the legendary Pokémon seen in Wild West, which was all about legendary Pokémon being forced into servitude by psychopaths. Knowing that, can you blame the legendaries for trying to wipe humanity out in Over There?
Generally, my concept was to insert Pokémon into the real world, and build believable ecosystems using only the ones in the Pokédex (Give or take a couple fakemon I added in). Pokémon in my experience works best when it allows the player a lot of opportunities for exploration. The world itself needs to be believable, even it it’s completely ridiculous, so that when the player walks through it, they feel like it’s a living, breathing place they’re walking through, which existed before they got there, and would continue to exist after they left. Both Over There and Wild West contained scenes of Pokémon acting like animals. Even Ghosts and Steel types were just another kind of creature, even if they operated under their own natural logic.
Why retrospect this game and not Wild West? Well, Over There was the first of these games ran in PTU, rather than PTA, and it was my first time running PTU.
Clearly, I like using legendaries. I find them a useful tool for GMing. They’re like gods, with personality. Of the two campaigns I’ve run, both have heavily involved legendary Pokémon. In my games, legendary Pokémon are forces of nature with human intelligence. They are all of them at least partially divine, if not completely divine, and there is a clear hierarchy between legendaries.
In the context of Over There! The most important Pokémon were:
The Legendary Deer/Three Musketeers
Virizion, Terrakion, Cobalion, and Keldeo were the main antagonists for this campaign. In human form, they would appear in military dress. As the campaign progressed, it became clear that the reason they’re fighting against humankind was because their domains, the woods, mountains, and seas, were being polluted and destroyed by humans, their wars, and the industrial revolution, which, in 1917, was well underway and changing the world. The twist is that only Cobalion remembers their original purpose; The musketeers were born from human desire to protect their domains, and were originally friendly with ancient people. Cobalion was the leader of the four, and his domain was humanity itself. While the others fought in their own domains, the fight with Cobalion focused on the horrors of war. It took place on an endless poppy field, where undead soldiers rose from the ground to do battle. He had decided that he would rather see humankind disappear than suffer, as this war made them suffer, and since he was so closely tied with humankind, he would disappear as well.
As they were defeated, they were trapped in human form, and were held prisoner in the PC’s camp. Terrakion even defected and joined Elsa’s Pokémon team after days and days of interaction with him.
As you might be able to tell, the “Higher Power” that condemned them was, in fact, Arceus, who in this campaign took the form of a vengeful patriarch creator god who will smite you as soon as look at you. He was, for all intents and purposes, “God.” He was also eager to erase humans from continuity, if not for…
The Player’s mysterious benefactor. He is the most adorable god of war. His motive is that without humanity, he would cease to exist, as he, like the deer trio, was born from humankind. Specifically, fire. Victini here represents not only war, but also Prometheus’ first fire. However, he also had an ulterior motive. It turns out that the players winning the game has the effect of transferring all the powers of creation to Victini, who, as we have established, is the god of war, victory, and fire. He planned to remake the world in humanity’s favor, creating a place of infinite war and conflict, where superpowers runs wild, and Pokémon are unneeded. Naturally, when the PCs went against his ideology, he fought them in a powered-up state as the final boss.
There were other Pokémon as well. Giratina acts as the opposite to Arceus. The literal devil who, nevertheless, allies himself indirectly with humans by opening up the closest thing to a “Shop” that the campaign had. After all, whose souls would he consume if humans didn’t exist? He likes humankind because of their imperfections. Mew showed up midway through, and allied herself with humans because it learned of the future, where humans would later torture it, and create a new life. If humans didn’t exist, Mewtwo would never exist, and even though the creature will have a difficult, painful life, and Mew will suffer, she still believes that Mewtwo deserved life. Groudon and Kyogre also appeared, although the players made the right choice. Allying themselves with one would alienate the other, and ALSO cause Rayquaza to come down and give them grief. Thankfully, it never came to that.
Celebi and Mew ended up being the main sources of comic relief.
HAPPY: Generally my favorite thing from the campaign was how the group was hostile towards itself for almost the entire campaign. Since the group came from opposite sides of a war, and even then the individuals had such radically different views, it led to fun interactions. The thickheaded martial artist and the proud captain both distrusting the ‘spy’, while not realizing that my character was almost the same role. The Germans trying to gain the trust of the American and Russian also added another fun layer to playing the slightly off kilter psychic. Slowly losing the facade she had perfected crowned into great moments a few times when it slipped completely. Speaking through a drug induced stupor would offer some insight into how she felt, and later when she attempted to tear a newly introduced NPC in half for accidentally insulting her in a most personal way. The entire campaign was a great ride for the calculating Fire and Ghost Elemental, and even left the ending open as she still hadn’t dropped the facade completely at the finale. It’s up to interpretation if Terrakion managed to wear the mask down in their travels later.
KAIN: Perhaps one of the things that stood out to me most in the campaign was the encounter against the Jewel Beedrills. These things were like, Amazonian or African variants of the normal beedrills, just green all over and Psychic-type. The way they reproduced was by laying eggs in their victims so the larva could have food when they hatched – pretty gruesome stuff. As I recall, one of our party members had been captured beforehand, and we presumed him dead, but he ended up being used as bait by one of the enemy’s generals to lure us out into a nest of these horrible things. The other PC was unconscious and webbed up in some kind of nest. Apparently jewel beedrill make webs? Or maybe it was another type of insect in the jungle.
KAMEN: It was supposed to be like the kind of paper nests that wasps make, even though the kind of wasps these beedrills were based on wouldn’t have made paper nests. Either way, Pokémon, ain’t gotta explain nothin’!
KAIN: As soon as we went to work freeing him and other Pokémon, we got swarmed by these bastards in the hundreds. To make matters worse, the PC had been pumped full of parasitic eggs beforehand, so not only were we scrambling to get away,we were also making field surgery because we didn’t know when the egg would hatch. I was the surgeon. Goodtimes.
DOMO: My most memorable moment came shortly after a boss fight. A Clefable had gotten hold of an Adamant Orb and was using it to essentially channel different moments in time, at least partially to showcase how destructive humanity is/was/would be. Once the party managed to put the threat down, they attempted to pick up the Adamant Orb and it ‘split’ each time a new party member touched it, essentially generating a new copy unique to each party member’s ‘timeline’. The other characters decided they would use their orbs to pull powerful Pokémon out of elsewhere in time to help them.
KAMEN: This was an opportunity for crossover with My Wild West or Aeros’ futuristic Space campaigns. They could pull Pokémon forward or backward in time to “borrow” for important fights.
DOMO: But I was playing Ivan, and Ivan was an extreme fatalist in a way that only Russians can really achieve. He reasoned that messing with time was too dangerous, particularly if done by someone who had no idea what the ramifications would be. And rather than let his copy of the orb fall into anyone else’s unskilled hands, he smashed the orb into dust. From the get go, Ivan had been leery about playing ‘the game’ that was the campaign’s premise, and while Over There had a lot of moments of strong characterization, this one instance of total defiance sticks out for me. Plus, Kamen and I decided that breaking the orb had its own rewards/consequences, which tied into one of the more bittersweet epilogues I’ve ever been a part of.
KAMEN: Specifically, Ivan became essentially ageless and immortal, and considering Russian history isn’t very happy, that’s not a very nice thing. For more information, check out Ivan’s Super journal, which more or less ended up being “canon.”
Would You Like to Know More?
So, yeah, Over There! Very much NOT a traditional Pokémon game where you collect badges and challenge the E4. It was dark, violent, included religious imagery and themes, and was morally gray throughout. I and others compared it at the time to Shin Megami Tensei, mostly because of how the legendaries were kind of handled like SMT handles demons, and because I was playing SMT4 at the time, so that bled over into the game. Best of all, the ENTIRE campaign was logged and pastebinned at the link below, in case you’re curious about how the game actually flowed. It wasn’t perfect, despite how positive I sound, but I think the players had fun.