Jumping the Grand Canyon with Pikachu and Friends
I wandered into our brand-spanking-new Electronics Boutique at the mall last night and discovered the first of the new WotC Pokemon Jr. adventure games, "Pokemon Emergency" is now available. Being interested in the continuation of our industry long enough to make it to retirement age (and having a seven-year-old Pokemaniac niece I can blame for the purchase), I picked one up to see what directions the folks at WotC were taking with this product.
(I'll leave questions like "Why the heck was the first time I saw this at a VIDEO GAME store?" and "Why is this thing not even MENTIONED on the wizards.com web site, let alone shouted from the rooftops, despite the fact that the wizards.com site is plugged on the box?" as exercises for the Gentle Reader. Please, keep it gentle, reader.)
If any of you haven't seen this (and I'll bet that's most of you, judging by how surprised that I was to see it) let me run the basics down for you. It comes in a slick little self-hanger box in aqua and purple; 3.5" x 6" (about the same size as the old Metagaming micros), but about an inch-and-a-half thick. The back (marked with logos for WotC, Milton Bradley, Hasbro, and Nintendo) describes it as a "story-game" and says "Recommended for a PARENT and 1-6 players, AGES 6-8". (The capital letters are just as shown on the box...)
The cardboard tray inside contains 26 Pokemon power cards. These are slick, double-sided, full-color cards on exceptionally heavy stock with big round corners, depicting various Pokemon -- a different attack form on each side. (Don't know what "Pokemon" are? Welcome back from Mars. Is it nice this time of year?) Six more similar cards have checklists of all 150 Pokemon. (No Mew?) Only 22 Pokemon are actually provided as cards in this set. These are indicated in red on the checklist and the fact is noted prominently. (Yep, there are more sets coming with more Pokemon, making the sets collectible. If they'd missed THAT angle, I'd have recommended them for psychiatric review.)
The game also contains a couple of punch-out pog-like "Pikachu coins" to flip, a bunch of punch-out quarter-size tokens representing hits, a slick full-color 60-page adventure book (copiously illustrated) and a lone six-sided digit-marked die. (No special "Pikachu die"? Aw... Probably would have jacked the price up and delayed the release, but that is the ONLY component disappointment in the package.)
The rulebook sets up a parent as "gamemaster" (they call it "narrator"), with the kids playing Pokemon trainers. Each starts with a single Pokemon power card, and the object is, naturally, to "begin your Pokemon journey and work toward becoming a Pokemon master".
The rulebook explains how to use the Pokemon power cards to play Pokemon contests. (The term "battle" is avoided, apparently on purpose. Contest procedure is appropriately simple. Each power card (Poliwag's Bubble attack or Pikachu's Thunder Wave) has 1 to 5 numbers listed (4 5 6 for the Bubble, 5 6 for the Thunder Wave). When you attack, you roll the die. If the number showing is one listed on your power card, the attack succeeds. Each attack has a number of hits shown. The target gets than number of hit tokens. Some cards also instruct you to flip a Pokemon coin. If the green side shows, you can get additional hits, or trigger other simple special effects. If your Pokemon gets hit tokens that equals or exceeds his hit point total (shown in the corner of his power card), he faints.
If that were where it stopped, this would be a junior version of the Pokemon trading card game and that's all. (And, indeed, the book suggests the game can be played this way when no adult narrator is available.) But that's just the core mechanic. (Pretty much the ONLY mechanic. This sets a new standard for "rules-light".) The rest of the booklet (everything after page 12) is a 16-episode adventure. It is a real roleplaying adventure, not only featuring Pokemon "contests" but encounters with friends, rivals, and enemies, problems to be solved, people and Pokemon to be helped, and a number of chances for players to interact with familiar characters from the game/TV series like Professor Oak, Gary, Nurse Joy, Officer Jenny -- and those quintessential bad guys/fall guys, Jessie, James and Meowth of Team Rocket. (If you recognize none of those names, there are no seven-year-olds in your life and you don't watch any Saturday morning TV. I'm not sure whether to pity you on envy you.)
Each episode uses icons and color-coding to show which parts the Narrator reads to himself as instructions, and which parts he is to read to the players. The storyline is quite linear, as one might expect, but the Narrator is given simple questions to ask the players along the way to spark their imaginations. ("A little boy sits at the edge of the river. What does the little boy look like? What do you say to the little boy?") Narrator/parents are encouraged to talk with the children about what they see in the Pokemon "universe", and get them to describe what is around them, creating it in their imaginations. They are instructed to encourage questions and answers, and are reminded to praise all efforts -- that there are no right or wrong answers. A few simple pieces of advice are given about using different voices, acting in character, and encouraging all the children in the game to participate and talk.
This is a real "roleplaying game" written for parents and small children who have never HEARD of that term. Indeed, the term is never used. The game is called an "adventure" game or "storytelling" game throughout. Despite that, many of the conventions of the RPG are introduced in appropriately simplified form -- hit points and dice rolls, non-player characters, etc. There are no "game stats" for the young Pokemon trainers who are the alter-egos of the players. Their appearances, capabilities, and actions are whatever the players SAY they are, with the narrator along to make sure everyone gets a chance to shine.
The game seems to be an attempt to bridge the CCG / RPG gap on a six-year-old's level, and does a pretty decent job of it, as far as I can tell without sitting down to play. (I probably won't get a chance to try this out on Elizabeth, my own seven-year-old prime target playtester, until Christmas when Auntie Baba and Uncle Guy visit her...)
Can the average parent manage to become a "gamemaster" for a group of kids using these rules alone? It's likely -- the stuff is well written (game design by Bill Slavicsek and Stan!, with episode design by Slavicsek) and shows some sign that the authors have indeed been around seven-year-olds and their parents.
The real question is, will the average parent bother? I really hope the answer is "yes" because I really would like to see this product succeed. If the parents can run this and the kids can play it, it is only a short hop to playing their favorite comic book hero, or involving themselves in stories based on their favorite TV shows or movies. Well, maybe not a SHORT hop. Graduating from Pokemon Jr to something like the (late, lamented) Star Wars Introductory Set would be a jump, but not as big a jump as the one from the classic board games or video games to something like Dungeons and Dragons. It is a narrow river to be crossed, not a Grand Canyon. It is movement in the right direction.
But I'm skeptical -- not of the game itself, but of the willingness of the average parent to take the trouble to play with the children in a close and interactive fashion. The "stick-em-in-front-of-a-TV" parent may fork over the $12.95 for this game, but how many will actually run it with their kids? If this game can make that happen in any significant numbers, it would be a breakthrough whose implications reach far beyond the "gaming industry".
But it is one thing to sit down and roll dice and move pawns for an hour. It is another to try and talk like Jigglypuff, and to recite Team Rocket's motto with a straight face, and to ask your kids "What do YOU see and hear in the Viridian Forest?", and to listen and encourage them when they tell you. Are there still parents who can do such things? Who will?
Hasbro's "Family Game Night" promotion does show some signs of taking hold, a bit. If Hasbro/MB/WotC put that kind of effort behind promoting THIS concept... well, I dream of such things, for everyone's sake. Especially, for the sake of the next generation. I sincerely hope they don't just hang these on pegs at Electronics Boutique and hope someone notices.
Recent releases like The Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book (Mark C. MacKinnon / Guardians of Order) show that RPGs and younger players CAN mix. This could show us if parents can be brought into the equation.
It is a good job; a good try. It has the right characters, the right timing, the right money and production behind it, the right sort of attitude and writing within it.
I'd like to think it will work. I hope it will work.
What do you think?