Happy Tabletop Tuesday, adventurers! Today is the final entry in this miniseries all about character creation in Pokemon tabletop RPGs. Two weeks ago we began our journey by creating a character in Pokemon Tabletop United (PTU), a game with a unique ruleset that takes the basics established in the Pokemon video games and expands upon them. Last week we created that same character in Pokemon 5th Edition (P5E), a hack of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition that seeks to bring the Pokemon universe to a familiar and established roleplaying ruleset. Now that I have some experience with character creation processes, I want to take some time to compare them and to discuss the pros and cons for those who wish to enjoy Pokemon at the tabletop.
As a quick review, let’s go over the character I made in each game one more time. Her name is Milliarde, and she grew up in Cerulean City. A talented swimmer, she loved water Pokemon as much as she loved swimming and this inspired her to become the gym leader of Cerulean City. Milli is driven and has a ton of spunk to the point of being impulsive, so it’s a good thing she has her trusty Squirtle named Gunner to protect her as well as try to rein her in when she jumps into situations without thinking. In each game I tried to capture her athleticism, her contagious enthusiasm, her mission to be a gym leader, and her stoic companion.
I’m going to compare these two titles on many of the points I would consider during a review of a roleplaying game. The presentation of the books, the richness of the setting, and the mechanisms of the game will all be considered, but only as they apply to character creation. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to experience either of these games at the table, so unfortunately I won’t be able to share that perspective. Still, character creation says a lot about a tabletop game, so my hope is that comparing these processes can help someone trying to decide which Pokemon game to play works best for them.
Just as the graphics of a video game define our first impressions of that game, a tabletop game’s rulebook sets up expectations for your experience. A rulebook with good art, accessible text, and intuitive navigation (particularly where PDFs are concerned) helps you to be excited for a tabletop experience. Conversely, a boring or frustrating rulebook can turn you off to the RPG before you even start.
When it comes to the first two points, both games are pretty solid. P5E mainly relies on the official art from the games and anime while PTU features predominantly fanart. This gives each of them a separate aesthetic but both visual styles feel right for the intended audience – P5E is appealing to those looking for familiar Pokemon elements while PTU appeals to those looking to take what’s there and push the boundaries. Where these two games differ – and where one has a clear edge – is in intuitive navigation.
Both games require you to navigate two different rulebooks. For PTU, both of those books are specific to the game itself: one to cover all the game rules and the other exclusively dedicated to the Pokedex. For P5E, one book is the D&D player handbook and the other is the hack which makes it into a Pokemon game. Both of PTU’s rulebooks feature bookmarks which allow you to immediately jump to whatever section you need. You can go through the character creation chapter and then jump to chapters that discuss specific game mechanics in more detail (e.g. Edges, Features, Skills) as needed. P5E does not offer this advantage – you have a table of contents, sure, but otherwise no bookmarks to lead you directly to whatever section you need to look at. This is more frustrating the deeper into the book you need to go – since the majority of the rulebook’s space is dedicated to Pokemon stat blocks, having to scroll up and down until you find the right Pokemon is definitely a pain.
“Uh, Ian, isn’t the setting of both of these games just ‘the Pokemon world?'” While it may seem to be that simple on the surface, each of these tabletop games interprets the Pokemon setting in different ways, and these ways definitely say something about the kind of game you’re playing. Understanding how each one interprets the Pokemon world is important to choosing which one is most appropriate for you.
P5E is very much the world you expect from a Pokemon game. Pokemon are used to battle one another in what is effectively a competitive sport. There are rigid rules to how combat goes and failing to follow those rules can result in your trainer’s license being revoked. Specifically, trainers do not get involved in Pokemon battles and trainers do not attack each other or send their Pokemon after each other. Pokemon vs Pokemon violence is fine, but nothing else. This very much reflects the video games, where Pokemon are used in battle against each other and trainers are not actively involved in combat except to give orders.
PTU, on the other hand, takes a view of the Pokemon world which incorporates elements of the anime as well as some logical, real-life considerations. Of course a grown-up with more physical power than a punk kid would just physically jostle that kid when Pokemon battles weren’t getting the job done. Of course humans would develop weapons and use them to harm each other and to control Pokemon. Humans are also capable of developing some of the abilities of Pokemon, evidence that we see in the video games with trainer classes such as the psychic or the hex maniac. Trainers are more directly involved in conflict, and while the Pokemon League may prevent trainer vs Pokemon violence, the real world isn’t as pretty and clean as that. PTU offers a grittier Pokemon setting than P5E.
It’s important that you know which setting you want when choosing a game. How much like the video games do you want your experience to be? How much like the anime? How much like your gritty supernatural horror fanfiction? If you play P5E trying to create a setting where trainers use their own physical power to get what they want, the rules are going to resist you. If you play PTU wanting only to battle Pokemon with your trainer serving as an in-game avatar for you, the game is going to give you lots of extra tools that you’ll never touch. Choose the game that works more towards the setting that your group wants to enjoy together.
This is perhaps the most important question of character creation: what kind of character can you create? In both PTU and P5E you create both a trainer and a starter Pokemon to accompany them, but the options and tools you have for character creation are pretty different. I think for me the most interesting thing about creating the same character in both systems was learning about completely different aspects of that one character’s life.
PTU is very much about creating a character whose story lies ahead of them. You don’t necessarily have a lot of skills or abilities, and there’s very little pushing you to develop your character’s background. Instead, you look ahead at all the different trainer classes that are available and think about where you’re going. Since I wanted Milliarde to be a water type trainer, it made a lot of sense to angle for the Type Ace class (which chooses a specific Pokemon type and focuses on giving them specialized training). I looked at her starting class options to see which one would allow me to angle towards Type Ace in the clearest way, and which would give Milliarde abilities that gave boosts to her water Pokemon in battle.
Conversely, P5E doesn’t have a lot of directions for your character to go forward. There’s only one Pokemon Trainer class, which has a couple of different options you can choose to branch out and specialize but ultimately which will make some pretty similar characters as far as abilities are concerned. The future isn’t as significant as your character’s backstory and internal life – creating Milliarde in P5E pushed me to develop her history and her ideology a lot more. It gave me a richer view of what Milliarde believed in, why she cared so much about being a gym leader, and even allowed me to develop some quirks of her personality in a way that made her a more interesting character.
When it comes to Pokemon options, creating Pokemon in P5E is significantly easier and involves a lot fewer choices. However, there are way fewer Pokemon to choose from as well, with only 1st and 2nd gen Pokemon available. PTU is currently updated through 7th generation (and are even playtesting their second edition if you’re interested in that sort of thing), so you have literally hundreds more Pokemon to choose from. When making a choice between these two games, you’re making a choice between variety and accessibility – more on that in the next section.
It’s tough to make a full rules comparison of these games without fully experiencing them at the table. But the character creation process does allow you to learn the theoretical application of many of the mechanisms and at the very least, you can get an idea of the complexity of the rules based on how many terms and rules you have to look up during the process.
This is where PTU (which I may have seemed to be favoring up to this point) really starts to suffer. This game has a number of mechanisms to learn, many of reach are effectively unrelated. Stats do not affect skills, edges, or features in any way. Edges can improve skills but certain skill ranks are also required for edges. Some edges improve only a certain aspect within a specific skill. Features may require specific skill ranks to unlock, but also may require certain features. All classes are features but not all features are classes. And because the choices you make in character creation could influence your ability to get a specific feature or edge you want in the future, you have to plan ahead so that all of your decisions line up with where you want your character to eventually be.
Conversely, P5E benefits a lot from the streamlined mechanisms of the D&D 5E system. I’ve only played D&D 3.5 in the past, and at the time I found it cumbersome and archaic – 5th edition fixes a lot of those issues. Character creation from a mechanical perspective is pretty simple: you choose a class, assign your six ability scores, and then choose what skills and saving throws you are proficient in. Your skills are all based on a modifier from your ability scores, enhanced by your proficiency bonus based on whether you are proficient or not. BAM. Easy. The most time-consuming part of character creation was spent thinking about cool stuff like what defines Milliarde’s personality or what drives her to go on adventures, and those things are the fun stuff.
PTU and P5E each offer a different view of the Pokemon world and a different mechanical experience. When I first started this journey, I expected to clearly prefer one over the other. This came partially from the fact that my previous Dungeons and Dragons experience had me convinced that there was no way I could enjoy a game based on D&D (even though 3.5 and 5E are very different, something I learned thanks to this experience). What I discovered is that which game is “better” is totally subjective (GASP!) based on what the needs of you and your group might be.
PTU is a crunchy, deep Pokemon game that allows for an in-depth explanation of the Pokemon world expanded beyond the confines of the video games. It takes time and planning to create a character in this game, and because the ruleset is unique, you’ll be learning something new in order to dive into its world.
P5E is a simpler Pokemon experience focused primarily on battling Pokemon against each other. You have way fewer Pokemon options and way fewer customization options, but what you get in exchange is accessibility that cannot be challenged. Many players already know D&D 5E inside and out – this is an excellent way for those players to have a fun Pokemon experience at the table. Even if you don’t know those rules, creating a character in P5E will be quicker and simpler than PTU.
So if you’re reading this, adventurer, and thinking about which game might be the best fit for your table, I’ll ask you this: what kind of Pokemon game do you want to play? Do you want to fight some gym leaders and Team Rocket using longtime favorites in a familiar setting with familiar rules? Pokemon 5th Edition is probably gonna be your game. Do you want to explore the Pokemon world in depth and dive deeper into the series’ lore while playing as a deeply customizable character using complex rules and a larger variety of Pokemon? Pokemon Tabletop United is more likely to scratch your itch. The world of Pokemon is vast and exciting, appealing to fans of all ages and all preferences – luckily for us, the tabletop games inspired by it are much the same.