This past weekend, I played in a one shot boffer LARP, Pocket Monsters: The Hunted. I have a sentimental sort of affection for the Pokémon franchise; I’ve played through Pokémon Blue and half of Crystal, and way back when, I used to watch the cartoon. Pikachu is one of my favorite Super Smash Brothers characters; I’ve cosplayed as the lightning mouse at a few geek cons. And anyone who has spent time in my presence over the last couple of years has likely seen me playing Pokémon Go.
So it probably comes as no surprise to say I’ve been very excited about this LARP ever since I heard about the concept, and every bit of information coming out from the staff had me looking forward to the LARP even more. It was billed as a comedic horror (or, more specifically, a dark comedy horror survival LARP), in which players play Pokémon, and NPCs play all of the humans, including trainers who would be hunting and chasing down the Pokémon to capture. I loved this concept.
Each Pocket Monsters player got to pick their own Pokémon to play from the original 150, excluding legendaries. (With the caveat that we had to begin as the first in an evolutionary line, e.g. we could start as a pidgey, but not as a pidgeotto or pidgeot.) I agonized over the decision for myself and a friend of mine for months, polling lots of people for opinions (particularly some of my fellow Pokémon Go enthusiasts who are likely now relieved they no longer have to hear about it.)
Factors included wanting to play something cute and recognizable (so that the costume could be reused as cosplay) and unlikely to overlap with other players’ choices. I also wanted it to be very flexible for the weather — I’ve played outdoor boffer LARPs in August before, with weather so hot and humid that even light, loose linen felt oppressive.
But I think my biggest consideration was costuming — I wanted something I felt I was capable of doing to my own satisfaction, without over-committing my time or money. I knew if I played certain Pokémon, I’d get a specific image of my ideal costume in my head, and I’d end up regretting it if I either couldn’t fulfill that image, or else fulfilled it and then found it somehow uncomfortable or impractical to wear. (I sometimes make myself a little nuts over costuming.) And I wanted to limit the number of costumes I made; I knew if I picked Eevee, I’d end up making four costumes, with two going unused.*
I ended up coming back around to Pikachu for myself, and Sandshrew for my friend. Since my old cosplay is a sweatshirt, I knew I’d be re-doing most of my Pikachu costume from scratch, along with a Raichu and Sandslash costume in case we evolved.
Wild PIKACHU appeared!
PIKACHU wants to fight!
Of the four costumes, I’m quite happy with how Sandshrew turned out (and people really responded to it at the LARP, which was nice), and less thrilled with the other three. The Sandshrew costume was recognizable, and had a sort of practical, outdoorsy-adventurer vibe that I thought rather suited the armored, defensive Sandshrew. (I will save the details for a future post about my various costuming projects this summer.)
Wild SANDSHREW appeared!
SANDSHREW wants to fight!
The mechanics for the LARP were relatively simple — the combat rules were not unlike a pared down version of Accelerant and a pared down system of elements from the Pokémon franchise. For abilities, each player got to choose one progression path — Offense, Defense, Buff, or De-Buff. (I picked Offense because it was the only path that got long weapons and ranged weapons, and had fewer calls to remember.) We also gained one hit point per hour. In practice, I felt like this system successfully captured the feeling of being Pokémon without overly complicating things.
I rather liked mechanics of capturing Pokémon — trainers could throw Poké Balls and declared a number (eg “Capture 10”). If the number declared was higher than your current hit points, you would be successfully captured by the trainer, who could then give you orders (and enter you into Pokémon battles and take you to gyms.)
And I particularly liked the communication rules — Pokémon were allowed to speak freely when only fellow Pokémon were present. In the presence of humans, we could only speak our names repeatedly, as the Pokémon do in the cartoons. I thought this sounded like it would a ton of fun (and I was right! It was one of my favorite elements of the experience.)
Overall, I think the staff did a fantastic job, and successfully accomplished what they set out to do. There was a bit of a genre/tone shift for me somewhere on Saturday, but Friday night and moments on Saturday captured the feeling of the horror genre better than any other LARP I’ve played, and horror is particularly difficult tone to capture in LARP.
Both PC and NPC costuming definitely deserve a mention here. We had a lot of leeway with our costumes — we were welcome to go simple or full detail/completion from head to toe, and span the spectrum from literal to representative. Some people had licensed onesies, others had drawn on t-shirts. Some people wore regular clothing that represented the Pokémon in color scheme and silhouette, some looked to Pokémon gijinka artwork online for inspiration, and at least one took inspiration from “what if Pokémon were real” artwork. (Ditto had a filmy pink layer over visible organs, on top of dozens of homemade accessories to represent various transformations. Way to go the extra mile!) The NPCs also trotted out so many different instantly recognizable trainers and Pokémon, I can’t imagine how many hours of work went into them. Special shout-outs to some of the custom boffers I saw, including Cubone/Marowak’s bone clubs, Farfetch’d’s leek, and Jigglypuff’s sharpie marker and microphone.
All of this costuming for an established franchise LARP had an interesting impact — I could instantly recognize and name over 30 characters right at the start of the LARP, and pretty much every NPC that came out. (No nametags required.) And this is from someone who can play campaign LARPs for years and still not know every PC’s name, let alone many of the NPCs. I think this had a really huge positive impact on my enjoyment and ability to feel immersed in the LARP. I might have thought there might be some meta-issues, moments where I wasn’t sure if my character had met another yet or if I was drawing on out-of-game knowledge, but this proved to be moot, thanks to the tone and structure of the LARP.
Of course, it also helped that for the one or two Pokémon I didn’t recognize immediately, they were still saying their names repeatedly, as I’m sure that was helpful for anyone less familiar with the source material. Also, many of the NPCs got their human role acting spot on (James and Jessie’s voices, Nurse Joy’s gentle kindness, Lt. Surge’s accent and derisiveness towards “da baby Pikachu”)… Some of the professor NPCs were brand-new to LARPing, and they did a great job. (I’m sorry to say I missed Brock making goo-goo eyes at Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny.)
As I mentioned above, Friday night was particularly successful for me in capturing the feel of the horror genre. We were lead into Pallet Town and to the Pokémon Center by an Oddish. Then I dipped out briefly to deal with my contact lenses, and by the time I got back, the Pokémon Center had been overrun by trainers, and everyone had scattered. It was very dark out, and there was a thunderstorm, with heavy rains and frequent flashes of lightning.
I caught up with Sandshrew, and we started searching the campsite for our fellow Pokémon, but until the Pokédex updated, we had no way of knowing which of our fellow Pokémon had already been captured and were under trainer control. Behind the bathrooms, we ran into Diglett, who was smiling oddly. He started praising Team Rocket and suggesting we join it, which set off alarm bells. (Diglett was dressed in a full body, hooded spandex suit and a bright red clown nose, which really enhanced the effect.) As we started backing away, he started shouting, “DIGLETT DIGLETT” to alert the nearby Team Rocket; Sandshrew and I bolted.
When I finally had to stop running to catch my breath, I realized I’d lost Sandshrew somewhere in the dark, but I was too scared to come out of the bushes. It was dark, I could hear far off voices of trainers and panicked Pokémon, it was pouring rain and thunder was rumbling. I couldn’t see much except for during flashes of lightning (which were having a negative effect on my night vision). I had a yellow poncho I’d made into a basic Pikachu costume when I’d heard there was going to be rain, but foolishly, I had given it to Sandshrew to hold during a brief gap between downpours, and I quickly became soaked to the bone. (The padding in my fleece tail and ears absorbed a lot of water, so I had to squeeze them out periodically.)
I had no idea where to go — the place that might have been a safe haven (the Pokémon Center) was overrun. I decided I had to find Sandshrew and find out if he was still free or captured, so I started making my way slowly through the parking lot, ducking behind cars as flashlights floated by. I couldn’t see anything besides the bright points of light, and I didn’t know if it they were trainers or Pokémon, unless lightning flashes briefly lit them up. (It was very classic horror movie when the lightning revealed people.) At one point I really wasn’t sure if a light was approaching me or not as I hid behind a car, and my mind started racing. Maybe they would pass me by if I stayed silent? Or did they already know I was there, and I should I make a break for it, and risk getting caught as I ran?
This is what really captured the horror for me. It was brilliant.
At some point, I ran into Zubat and Rhydon, who were both still free. We quickly exchanged what little information we knew on who had been captured, and decided to try the Pokémon Center again, as there was no where else in-game to get out of the rain. (That we knew of.) But the Poké Center was still crawling with trainers. We thought about trying to get in the back door, but the trainers on the porch spotted us. Rhydon and I made a pact to split up — he’d go left, I’d go right, and hopefully they’d only chase one of us, so the other could make it. I got about halfway across the yard before they came at me, so I turned and bolted back the way I came, hoping Rhydon had gotten safely by.
At this point, I was so utterly soaked by the rain, I had to go back to my cabin and change clothing and shoes. (This is where I joined back up with Sandshrew.) Luckily, I had a backup tail that came with my ears, because the padding in my original tail had absorbed too much water. But we weren’t quite sure what to do with ourselves at this point, since there was no where to go and it didn’t seem sensible to just hide in the rain for awhile. Eventually, we decided to search for more free Pokémon, and this involved getting briefly lost on the paths through the woods (very appropriate for a Pokémon storyline) before heading to bed.
This is about where this post gets particularly spoiler-y. I have no idea how likely this LARP is to run again — it’s seems unlikely, but I think it really should. (Would be a shame if so much of the NPC costuming never got any more use!) I would definitely leap at the chance to NPC if it did. But maybe my wishful thinking isn’t enough… all I can say is spoilers below. Caveat lector.
On Saturday, there was a lot less hunting going on — trainers largely had their teams. For awhile we focused on earning badges at the gyms. Some of them involved battling, some involved puzzles, others involved just helping out the gym leader with some problem. (Which is pretty true to the cartoon.) I particularly liked the dodge-ball mechanics of the Water gym (where we uncovered a love note from Misty to Ash — a cute little detail) and the Poison gym, which involved balancing on boards in combat before two of our number succumbed to poison. (Sadly, the Poison, Fire, and Psychic gyms all went off at the same time, so I missed Fire and Psychic. I hear they were a lot of fun, with the Fire gym involving a game of The Floor is Lava.) In between gyms, the professors showed up and hosted a few contests, and invited us to try out different candies, and took notes on the results.
The second point of the LARP which I feel really captured the horror genre took place Saturday afternoon, when Professor Oak gathered us all into the Pokémon Center for an announcement, and clarified that once we were all inside, the doors were locked. (Gastly stayed outside and watched through a window. His mask was downright creepy, so having that scary face floating at a window actually added something to the scene.)
The professors had been acting pretty sketchy all along — the purposes of the contests were unclear, but they were clearly taking notes and quietly making plans for the winners. Additionally, there was also a pretty weird scene earlier in the day (which was pre-empted by announced content warnings) where the professors welcomed the PCs to the door of the basement, where we met a Ditto in a sexy dress. They invited us to go inside with the Ditto one at a time. As Pikachu, I was much too freaked out to go inside, but the Pokémon who did emerged with eggs. The professors were later trying to coerce us into giving up the eggs, even trying to prevent Nurse Joy from healing Pokémon who refused.
For those unfamiliar with the video games, some of the later editions have systems for breeding Pokémon, and Ditto is sometimes referred to as “the breeding stud of the Pokémon world” because it can cross-breed with any Pokémon, which makes it very useful for producing rare eggs.
(Shout out to the Ditto, whose body language and tone when they leaned on the doorway and said “ditto” in a tired, perfunctory sort of way, clearly meaning “next.” The acting in that tiny moment spoke volumes.)
It was as unsettling as it sounds. I couldn’t trust the professors after that, no matter how friendly they seemed. Pikachu participated in the contests both because they appealed to its pride** (which was pricked by Lt. Surge and his more powerful electric Pokémon) and because they were a primary source of Revive and Full Heal potions. (And on an out-of-game level, they were fun!)
Also, notably, there were mechanics preventing Pokémon from attacking humans.
We knew something was about to go horribly wrong when Professor Oak told us to gather for his announcement. And we were right. There’s a long standing joke among Pokémon Go players that when you trade Pokémon to Professor Willow for candy, the Pokémon are actually getting turned into candy. And at the Pokémon Center in Pocket Monsters, there was a large candy-dispensing machine prop made out of a cardboard box large enough to hold a person.
You can see where this is going.
Professor Oak announced that none of us had stood out by winning enough contests… I couldn’t quite hear the whole thing, but at the end of the speech his pulled out a gun and shot an NPC Clefairy who had been cooking in the kitchens. When Nurse Joy protested, he shot her too. Then he stuffed the Clefairy in the candy machine, and offered us the handfuls of candy that came out.
The entire room erupted into screaming, with Pokémon clawing at the windows to get out.
A number of Pokémon had already eaten candy at the instruction of their trainers, because it provided a boost in combat ability and enabled evolution, though it also muddied up one’s memories a bit. I hadn’t yet, neither had Sandshrew. (Actually, earlier in the day in a moment of unintentional foreshadowing, I had given my candy to the Clefairy.)
Now you know why neither Pikachu nor Sandshrew ended up evolving that weekend.
It got worse — as we were unable to communicate properly to the trainers, some of the trainers, ignorant of the source of candy, gave orders to their Pokémon to eat more. I literally knocked out Ivysaur twice because it was the only way I could see to prevent her from having to obey Brock’s order to eat another candy.
Mechanically, the death of Nurse Joy had a very interesting effect. Typically, in boffer events, whether one-shots or campaigns, healing is limitless, especially the slower forms of healing (as opposed to instant healing) which can be performed during downtime. There’s lots of good reasons for this — notably, when you limit healing, you provide incentive for people to avoid plot hooks and events; people want to conserve their hit points.
However, I do think it’s worth playing around with the concept of healing being significantly limited resource, especially for dark and/or horror settings. With the death of Nurse Joy, who had been providing limitless, instant full healing in the Pokémon Center, suddenly the only source of healing we had outside of combat were the Revives and Heals, which were mostly coming from Professors and as prizes from Gym Leaders. (During combat, the Pokémon who had chosen the Buff path had some limited healing.) Downtime no longer meant automatically returning to full health. We had to think about how to conserve our hit points and healing as a resource, which changed the feel of the game significantly.
Not too long after, we learned why Pokémon were unable to properly communicate with humans or attack them — there were chips implanted in our heads, and we needed to find a safe way to remove them and obtain and publicize evidence of the professors’ crimes. We had to defeat the remaining gyms to obtain an HMO1 in order to unlock Oak’s lab, where we would find the evidence and the means to remove our chips.
We ended up burying some evidence in the woods to retrieve later, and also publicizing the professors’ crimes by forcing a captured scientist to alter the online Pokédex. (It has since been corrupted; amusingly, we’re all listed as Missingno now.)
This is about where the LARP shifted away from the horror genre for me, and more towards a sort of dystopian heroic rebellion genre. The themes of justice vs. revenge, and holding the moral high ground vs. stooping to the level of the enemy, were brought to the foreground in interesting ways. In particular, the themes were reinforced by an odd little side-plot involving a crazy Mr. Mime who had declared himself the king of a nearby Pokémon-only country, free from humans and their control over us, only to become a tyrant. We had to treat with him and his fanatical Pokémon followers. (Eventually, we imprisoned him in a Poké-ball. Oh, the irony.)
I also hear that at some point, when I was not in the Pokémon Center, a human got stuffed into the candy machine. I don’t know if candy came out (“Randy-Candy”?), but sometime later, a bunch of Pokémon had the cathartic experience of smashing the candy machine.
A major highlight of the LARP for me was when a professor realized we could attack humans, and fled in a panic. Despite the protests of my fellow Pokémon that it was too dangerous, I went pelting after him. He thought he was safe on the path back to Monster Camp (the NPC building), but Pikachu was still hot on his heels. I thought for sure he heard me coming, but I somehow managed to catch him by surprise and lit him up with electric attacks (“PIKA PIKA PIKA!!!”) until he managed to reach the safety of the NPC building.
What can I say, Pikachu was slipping towards the dark side.
The final moments of the LARP involved us essentially slaughtering a bunch of helpless professors and scientists (who had been expecting to slaughter us, to be fair), which was an interesting choice. Usually, boffer LARPs that end in combat design the combat to be a difficult battle, so that winning feels like a climatic accomplishment. But this sort of thing nearly always involve the best combatants getting the spotlight in the final moments while others looked on. The one sided massacre at the end of Pocket Monsters had a perfectly shared spotlight for the entire cast of PCs. I didn’t participate in the slaughter (I guess Sandshrew kept me from falling entirely to the dark side), yet I didn’t feel overshadowed or irrelevant, as I often do, even when I’m active combatant in final battle scenes. To me, that’s a notable achievement.
Now, I’m home with a case of the post-LARP blues. There was another LARP that ran this past weekend, a musketeer and pirate themed event called A Wicked Wind, which seems unlikely to run again. (Despite my impassioned pleas to the head writer. I went through a phase of acute obsession with The Three Musketeers around 6th grade, and never really got over it.) I have no regrets over my choice to play Pocket Monsters — I had a wonderful weekend and I got to meet LARPers from another local community that I’ve been hoping to LARP with for ages, but it does breaks my heart that I couldn’t be in two places at once. (My kingdom for a Time Turner.)
I also seem to have developed a bad case of poison ivy from stumbling through the woods in the dark in a desperate attempt to avoid capture by trainers.
Totally worth it.
*Theoretically. It turns out, during the LARP, a vaporeon was able to become a flareon.
** Most people used he or she for their Pokémon pronouns, but I feel pretty strongly, based on the cartoon, Pikachu’s pronouns are it/it/its.