Worldbuilding with Pokemon

Pokemon is obviously a huge decades-long phenomenon of a franchise requiring no introduction. Yet despite this fact, I am surprised by just how little impact it has had on fiction, how little regard is paid to the fact that it is a unique science fiction or fantasy sub-genre. My intention for this post is to describe what I think makes Pokemon unique as a sub-genre, and using that as a case example for how to go about thinking about works of fiction and how they might be extrapolated into new kinds of sub-genres, which can then be explored in tabletop RPG form.

I am aware of the rash of Pokemon knockoff videogames or anime and manga, some of which have come into their own, or for that matter Pokemon-inspired TTRPGs or unofficial Pokemon fan TTRPGs, but that’s not really what I mean. Yes, there is a unique gameplay aspect to the monster collection / monster battler genre, but I’m speaking more to the setting aspects.

Pokemon is a world of magical creatures that are not quite animals but also not quite human, even when they have human or superhuman intellect. They’re more like nature spirits or fey creatures from mythology. The Detective Pikachu movie characterized it really well, such as the interrogation of Mr. Mime, where it could only communicate through mimery. It made really salient the way that, even when they look humanoid and seem to have human-like intelligence, they operate by a different, magical kind of logic. I had been interested in exploring the concept of Pokemon much earlier, such as the Monsters & Madmen micro-setting from my old micro-setting post (I’ll come back to this later), or even when I was ~10 years old or so first playing the videogames and watching the anime, but Detective Pikachu was where this idea that they’re more like magical creatures really hit me.

People have of course talked about the questionable ethics of monster collection and battling, and I don’t think this idea of them being magical creatures totally mitigates that, but it does put an interesting alternative perspective on it. Pokemon are magical creatures, metaphorical extensions of humans; they can be examined from a human-centric approach and the monster collecting and battling can be recontextualized as a form of ritual and reverence towards nature and humanities place in it, as is often the case in animist religions and hunting in animist cultures.

There are a few not-obvious equivalents to this I can think of. Another series that I am shocked has not had more longterm resonance, is the Megaman Battle Network videogames (the micro-setting I-Cons in that micro-setting post linked above was inspired heavily by MMBN), where the internet is basically a virtual reality space where human operators use AI avatars called net navi to traverse the internet as if it were a physical space, and where the net navi usually reflect and exaggerate the characteristics of their operator. The manga/anime Shaman King also did a similar thing, where the ghost or spirit companions of the Shaman usually reflect some aspect of their personality or identity, and in this case the mythological elements are overt and literal. There’s actually a recent ongoing Netflix remake of Shaman King, but sadly it’s kind of mediocre (maybe Shaman King just doesn’t hold up as well as I remember :(?).

So as I’m listing it out, I guess there were some other settings, it seems almost exclusively from Japan, around the early 00’s, that either consciously or unconsciously got at these same sorts of ideas, but it was like a flash in the pan- maybe more exists out there, but not much I can think of, and nowhere near proportional to the continued popularity of Pokemon as a game or singular franchise.

So let’s return back to Monsters & Madmen. That name is not great, it was always a placeholder, and I still have not developed this setting much or done anything with it, so here we’re just using it to examine the thesis of this discussion.

The big war; the cities bombed and nations EM-pulsed; civilization as we know it is on the way out, but adults still cling to the old world from only a few years ago. On the other hand, the children wish only to leave their homes, to travel the empty, broken roads, and to collect and battle the monsters that have surfaced (or, perhaps, resurfaced) in the wake of humanity’s decline. The world is in anarchy. Some of the magical creatures the children geas are intelligent, some infinitely more so than humans. They bide their time as anarchy ensues and humanity dissolves under its own weight.

I was inspired by fan theories discussing “The Pokemon War” that canonically exists in the setting, and how a world could exist where 10-year old children travel the country or world alone, towards this seemingly frivolous goal of becoming a Pokemon Master, where the protagonists are missing fathers (who likely died in the war).

I was also inspired by Mad Max. Not Mad Max: The Franchise as it is popularly conceived, but the first Mad Max movie, the one that still looks and feels mostly like the real world- where an apocalyptic war occurred, but where there is still conceivably a chance of a return to “normalcy”, where the adults still remember “normal”, but the children live in a very different world.

One can imagine why I was thinking about this in 2018, but it is perhaps an even more relevant idea post-2020.

On the surface of it this could be a dark and dystopian setting, and that was more so the idea at the time that I first conceived it. But even then, I wanted there to be that possibility of hope- again, it’s no Mad Max Fury Road, it’s Mad Max 1. But also, adding in this human-centric approach of the monsters as extensions of people, as a part of nature- it’s still a bit half-baked within the context of this setting, but I believe this has legs.

So this is just one example of how Pokemon could be extrapolated into something fairly novel, and gameable, and how one might approach thinking about extrapolating other popular series into new kinds of sub-genres that have not been seen before.