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What Does it Take to Make a Pokemon LARP? February 1, 2019

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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I’ve been a fan of RPGs for nearly a decade and I’ve been fascinated by the rich history of the genre. Before video games even existed, RPGs could be played by having players sit around a physical table, making decisions, determining the outcome of those decisions with dice rolls and recording the outcome with a pen and paper. When video games became complex enough, they were able to adapt those rules and the genre’s popularity exploded. While many of the most popular RPGs had a medieval fantasy setting inspired by writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, the rules can be used in any game setting, including the futuristic Cyberpunk and the fantastical grounded world of Pokémon.

LARP is short for Live-Action Role Playing. It is an all-encompassing term used to describe a rules based RPG being played in real time in real environments by real people playing as characters. The most famous examples of commonly used LARP games include those based on Vampire: The Masquerade, Dungeons & Dragons, and Cyberpunk. In a LARP, players dress up in the costume of the character that they’re playing (regardless of how practical or impractical it may be in the real world), and live out the role of their character as if they are that person for the duration of the game. That includes everything from traveling the game space to seek out information, earning and spending in-game currency by completing jobs or accomplishing tasks, and wielding weapons to attack or defend themselves from enemies…other players.

If you’d like to see what it’s like to be a part of a fantasy inspired LARP for yourselves I recommend the film Monster Camp. Here’s the trailer:

The essential component of any game is that it needs rules and when you have a concept as complex as Live Action Role Playing, you’re going to spend a lot of time working on rules to ensure the game is fair and the players have fun. Even if you have an RPG sourcebook (like Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade) to frame your game, it can take a lot of trial and error to determine how you adapt those rules to real play. The fantastical creatures you find in those games don’t exist in real life, some venues prohibit the use of weapons (even prop ones) and it can be difficult to walk a fine line to keep a game fun while ensuring player safety.

What about Pokémon? Pokémon’s turn based gameplay, filled with attacks, status effects, buffs and debuffs is one of the most polished RPG systems I’ve ever seen in my life. There are no weapons used in the game and so no need for prop weapons! The game is also grounded in a world that looks pretty close to our own, with the only difference being Pokémon‘s world has magical creatures living in it. It is a perfect environment for a LARP! The mechanics of exploring, fighting, and trading can easily be ported into a paper rulebook and played almost anywhere on the planet. Heck, the Pokémon Go app practically turns the real world into a Pokémon LARP, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. Where do you draw the line on what should be physically done by the players and what shall take place on paper?

Entire sourcebooks have been written by LARP fans detailing rules of player contact, what kinds of prop weapons are allowed, and how much damage is done on successful contact with body parts. The problem is even though there are unified rules for Pen-and-Paper RPGs like D&D, there are no unified LARP rules. Every LARPing organization has their own code of conduct players are expected to memorize before participating. This can suck for new players who might prefer testing the waters before going all-in on joining a LARP with people they have not interacted with before.

I’ve seen videos online of a few attempts at Pokémon LARPs. They can involve two-person teams with one person being the Pokémon Trainer and the other being the trainer’s Pokémon in cosplay directly fighting another two-person team. The trainer shouts commands to their partner, who follows it by “attacking” the other Pokémon. The battle is won when one team is able to do enough “damage” to the opposing team’s Pokémon that it “faints”. Sound easy? Not really.

To me there are a few problems with having this as the setup for a LARP. Shouting commands to a second person who will then perform that command works better in a turn based system opposed to a real-time one. The problem is a turn based battle system would require an in-person judge on the side of every single battle. They would need to look at each team’s character sheets and determine who got to strike first, if the attack was successful, and how much damage each attack makes. That judge would essentially need to choreograph the entire battle on their own! I could see this system working as real-time if the LARP was strictly Pokémon vs Pokémon wild battles (like in the games Pokkén Tournament or Super Smash Bros) as it is very similar to how many other LARPs are organized. However, I don’t like this system either. To me, this setup would cut out several components of what makes Pokémon such a great game. Adventuring, collecting and trading could not be done in this environment. LARP is role playing, and that is not restricted to just battles. The biggest draw of players to LARP is the opportunity of living in a fantasy world and playing as a character that exists in that world for a brief time. While having a human player as the Pokémon can be one potential way of having a Pokémon LARP, I could see it getting pretty confusing to new players and require lots of judges who would pretty much choreograph each match themselves.

A Pokémon LARP has been done in what I think is the best way possible. The Penn State University Pokemon Club hosts a special LARP event they call the Penn State Pokemon Challenge every semester. Trainers are given a map and eight hours to travel across the campus. The objective is to locate and challenge each of the event’s Gym leaders to a local battle. All battles are done in person locally on Nintendo’s hardware, with each player required to bring their own Nintendo handheld loaded with a copy of the recent Pokémon game. While Penn State has specific house rules for what they allow during Pokémon battles (for example players can’t use Mythicals, Legendaries or the move Earthquake) the video game takes care of all the arithmetic a judge would need to make to determine which trainer wins each battle. Trainers who defeat Gym Leaders earn badges and the right to challenge the Elite 4 on the following day. The fact the main games have been released exclusively on portable platforms (Game Boy, DS, 3DS and Switch) gives players the opportunity to play their game anywhere in the real world against anyone else they choose and the Penn State Pokémon Challenge takes full advantage of this fact. There may be humans dressed as Pokémon wondering around the game environment, but those are only around to be “wild” Pokémon trainers could “catch” by throwing foam Pokéballs at them.

If you’re interested in seeing this event for yourselves, I’m happy to say a fantastic documentary, Pokémon Blue and White, detailed what’s involved with this event. It was directed by Ariel Siegelman and follows the story of a new student as he attempts the challenge with the support of his cosplayer girlfriend. It is not easy, and only one trainer can defeat the Elite 4. Whether you’re a casual Pokémon fan or a long-time Pokémon Master give this a watch.

If you’d like to know more about the Penn State Pokémon Challenge, you can check out the event’s official website. If you’re a student at Penn State who wants to participate, the next Penn State Pokemon Challenge will be happening on March 30th, 2019. As a college graduate who spent their freshman year at a University (which will not be named) which only offered religious or fraternal based social clubs, I weep for my lost opportunity to go to a school like Penn State where I could have actually enjoyed participating in its officially sanctioned social activities.

If you’re not a student at Penn State University, you might be able to find a Pokémon LARP at a fan convention. For example, the organizers of the Pokémon LARPs there have brought their style of LARP to various fan conventions. DerpyCon 2019 in New Jersey has announced they will be hosting a Real World Pokémon Challenge. It looks like they ported the rules from the Penn State Pokémon Challenge because the rules are almost identical to the Penn State rules. You can read the details and the full rules of the DerpyCon 2019 Real World Pokémon Challenge right here.

So what kind of resources are out there for people interested in becoming a part of a Pokémon LARP or starting their own? A crash course in the World of Pokémon can always help. A few years ago, we wrote a major essay titled “Do We All Live in a Pokémon World?” which talks about the history of the game, the game’s world and how it parallels our own. It’s perfect reading for anyone interested in learning about the Pokémon franchise for the first time.

Now that you know how the Pokémon world works, you’re going to need to create a character for your LARP. There are already lengthy records of various classes of NPC trainers that appear in the games, each with their own distinct look, attitude and Pokémon affinity. If you’d like an extremely detailed video about the various Pokémon trainers that appear in the games for inspiration on the character you’d like to play at a Pokémon LARP I have to recommend the great work of YouTuber TamashiiHiroka and her three part series, What Kind of Pokemon Trainer Are You? Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here. She shines a spotlight on nearly every kind of trainer you’ll find in the Pokémon world, and compares them with the kind of personality real people may have. If you see a trainer in the video that speaks to you personally, it might be a great starting point for creating your own LARP trainer.

So now that you know everything you need to know about RPGs, LARPing, and Pokémon it’s time to play! With the popularity of Pokémon in a resurgence, and the heavy sales of the Nintendo Switch, Pokémon LARPing, if presented with proper rules, has the chance to take over fan conventions all across the world. Some day I would like the chance to take the challenge and try to be the very best like no one ever was. To whoever decides to run this type of game, make sure to count me in!

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