It’s difficult to name a media franchise with as much instant recognisability and cultural penetration as Pokémon. Spanning anime, video games, trading card games and more, the critter catcher has become a decades-long phenomenon with a notorious reputation for changing its tried-and-true formula at a glacial pace, if at all.
Enter Pokémon Legends: Arceus - a definitive fork in the path of previous video games that borrows much from video games in the Monster Hunter series, from expansive outdoor areas and light stealth mechanics to crafting items on the fly and outrunning massive, angry creatures. It’s decidedly different from any past entry and has delighted players and fans despite several rough edges. If leaving the established trail of past Pokémon design - gym battles, Pokémon Leagues, linear routes, etc. - was a gamble for developer Game Freak, Pokémon Legends: Arceus has already proved an unmitigated success.
Pokémon’s recent break from tradition, along with 2022’s ongoing flirtation with licensed tabletop RPGs, may seem like the perfect opportunity to translate it into an analogue storytelling game. Except, that would overshadow the long tail of games inspired by its fantastical world and personal tales of friendship. If you have finished your time-hopping adventures in Hisui but want to bring that energy to the tabletop, here are three tabletop roleplaying games already delivering on what made Pokémon Legends: Arceus successful.
Monster Care Squad
Nurse wounded legends back to health as a team of specially-trained field vets
The main story of Pokémon Legends: Arceus involves the protagonist travelling to shrines scattered across Hisui to soothe the Noble Lord Pokémon of a strange affliction that leaves them raging and uncontrollable. These sequences involve throwing balm bags filled with a poultice before battling them with the player’s team. It’s an interesting substitute for gym battles that works in the game’s enhanced mobility controls, but it also cleaves extremely close to the premise of a recent tabletop RPG from the folks at Sandy Pug Games - Monster Care Squad.
Both Legends: Arceus and Monster Care Squad can trace a lot of DNA to Capcom’s prolific Monster Hunter series of video games, but trade out the explicit hunting and murder of enormous beasts for quests built around healing. Monster Care Squad runs with this premise and puts players in the shoes of specialised vets sent out into the world of Ald-Amura to cure majestic beings of a poison causing erratic and destructive behaviour. This sickness is described as The Lost God, something left over from a bygone era of war and poverty. The group will adventure out into the world to first identify the Monster and diagnose its affliction, followed by brewing cures, prepping magical boons and planning their approach. When they finally face off against the maddened Monster, the team of vets must carefully administer their aid without getting swept up in the collateral destruction.
What makes Monster Care Squad such a delight to play is a combination of thoroughly designed mechanics for exploration and investigation that reward careful planning combined with tense, thrilling combat encounters centred on protection instead of elimination. Its bestiary is brimming with wonderfully designed monsters that trump any legendary Pokémon, and players are spoiled for customisation options for their character. Where Pokémon Legends: Arceus used these encounters as boss battles to cap off a zone, Monster Care Squad intertwines each of its three core phases to build anticipation and reward player investment. If you enjoyed interacting with powerful Pokémon that did not just involve capturing or defeating them, Monster Care Squad will scratch that particular itch.
Purchase Monster Care Sqaud on Itch.io.
Befriend a strange creature and grow alongside them as a kid in a fantastical world
Animon Story is about as close as you can get to having an official Pokémon tabletop RPG without having Daddy Nintendo sign off on it. A bildungsroman narrative featuring weird little creatures that players can befriend and grow alongside, Animon Story provides its game masters and players with all the ingredients they need to make their own Pokémon stories. In the RPG, players meet monsters called Animon, which they then proceed to develop a relationship with as they go on various adventures together. When creating their character, players pick between a variety of different childlike archetypes - whether they’re the reserved bookworm or outgoing jock - which they’ll then proceed to grow out of as they discover who they really are.
Alongside their kid character, players are able to create their own Animon. When we say create, we mean literally make whatever players can dream up. Animon Story is the perfect outlet for anyone who’s always wanted a Pokémon that doesn’t actually exist. Or players can simply put their favourite Pokémon into Animon Story. As in the Pokémon video games, Animon are sorted into different types that affect their ability in battle. Eventually, if players are able to bond with their Animon enough, that creature can evolve into a more powerful being, with players being free to decide what that evolution will entail. Animon can also learn signature moves that players can customise, allowing them to empower their Animon to perform amazing feats.
Players don’t just control their child character in Animon Story, they’re also responsible for their Animon character. The GM might decide what kind of challenges they’ll face or which people or other Animon they might interact with, but it’s the player who makes the decisions for both their human and Animon characters. This setup enables players to develop a strong bond between their characters while defining who they are and who they’re going to become. For a tabletop RPG that gives you all the tools to live out your very own Pokémon coming-of-age story, Animon Story is hard to beat.
Buy Animon Story on the game's website.
Administer witchy palliatives to a village beset by curious curses and annoying ailments
When not trudging over the mountains and through the swamps of the Hisui region, the player character in Pokémon Legends: Arceus returns to a fortified base camp home to the Galaxy Team of researchers. Over time - and largely thanks to the efforts of the player - that camp transforms into a town with farms, homes and plenty of shops. It’s satisfying to watch the Galaxy Team members flourish and gradually open their frightened hearts to Pokémon, and that same feeling drives the storytelling in Anna Blackwell’s solo journaling RPG Apothecaria. Taking the helm of the lost village witch - who is also your mentor - players tend to the denizens’ medical needs while gradually expanding their suite of tools, ingredients and facilities.
Each day, a member of the village will arrive at the player’s doorstep stricken with some arcane cough, hamster-based lycanthropy or even a mundane wound. They must then travel into the varied wilderness beyond the village to collect ingredients for concocting a cure. Depending on the time of year and available equipment, rare and valuable components might speed along the process, while more potent curatives sometimes carry a slight toxin that must be nullified before brewing. Return successful, and the player will earn money as well as esteem among the villagers who aren’t sure whether to trust this newcomer. Funds can purchase better equipment and amenities for their witch hut, such as an herb garden, larger cauldron or a helpful homunculi.
There’s an overarching narrative to Apothecaria, but the game plays just as well if approached as a thematic journaling exercise. The act of learning where to gather certain plants, fungi and discarded creature parts mirrors what players do in Pokémon Legends: Arceus when first exploring a new region. Poké Balls, potions, lures and more need to be crafted from harvested materials that often lie in the path of hulking alpha Pokémon who don’t take well to interlopers. Mastering those routes is a satisfying part of the core gameplay loop, as is completing optional tasks for Galaxy Team members and watching their home flourish. Apothecaria is strongest when the player embraces their role as part of a community and arguably rewards that investment in a way the newest Pokémon game can’t quite meet.
Purchase Apothecaria on Itch.io.