Avatar Legends Skillfully Captures the Emotional Drama of the Source Material

When I was a young teenager my sister and I were still playing imagination games, essentially live action roleplays with no defined rules. We’d pick whatever show or game we were excited about at the time and port those characters and worlds into our play. We lived apart, but on certain weekends I would travel the half-hour distance to spend the weekend with my father, my grandparents, my sister, and our cousins. One particular weekend my sister and our cousin had picked a new, unfamiliar setting to inspire the game we were playing. It involved things like “penguin-sledding” and “water-bending” and seemed to my Cool Edgy Teenage Brain™ to be a bunch of dumb kid stuff that didn’t belong in our very serious imagination game. I didn’t know it at the time but this was my very first experience learning about the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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It would be much later when I saw my first episode of the show, in the middle of the second season. It was the end of the episode Bitter Work, a training montage which splits time between Aang learning earthbending from Toph and Zuko learning to redirect lightning from Iroh. There’s a scene towards the end of the episode where Zuko, having learned the proper form for lightning redirection, asks his uncle to strike him with lightning so he can practice. Iroh refuses on the grounds that an accident could be deadly, so Zuko takes off into the wilderness to find his own lightning. While standing in a raging storm, he calls out to the sky. “Go on, strike me,” he says. “You’ve never held back before. But now I can give it back!” As the lightning continues to fly off in all other directions, Zuko collapses to the ground in tears. At the time I had no context for any of Zuko’s struggle, but in that moment I decided to learn everything there was to know about this guy.

Fast forward to the modern day and Avatar: The Last Airbender is my favorite television show of all time. I’ve related to it in different ways over the years, and my understanding of it as a piece of entertainment and as a philosophical and political statement has become more nuanced over time. I’ve watched all of Legend of Korra, read both the Kyoshi novels, and read through all the ATLA comic books (still gotta get the Korra ones eventually). So I’m sure you can appreciate, reader, that when I learned that an Avatar tabletop roleplaying game was in development – with talented writer James Mendez Hodes in the lead and Magpie Games, the company behind games like Masks and Urban Shadows, in the publishing role – I knew immediately I was going to be all-in. My time was finally coming to redeem myself from that first imagination game with my sister and cousin all those years ago. I scooped up an eager group of friends, blazed through reading the quickstart rules, and got right to playing.

The first impressions in this article are based on three sessions with version 1.0 of the Avatar Legends quickstart. At the time of publishing, version 2.0 is already out in the world and the game’s Kickstarter campaign is live (and well beyond its funding goal). Our sessions have consisted of a session zero where we created characters, chose our campaign setting, and designed the inciting incident, and two sessions of play during which we resolved a single continued scenario built around a rescue operation that involved disguised infiltration of a building and then combat with two factions of enemies. Our experiences touched on the basic moves, balance moves, and combat moves, giving us a comprehensive experience of what is available in the quickstart version of the game. If you’re only interested in a particular section of the first impressions, you can use the Table of Contents below to jump around the article as needed.

Session Zero

Campaign Setting: Era and Scope

Starting your adventure in Avatar Legends means choosing the era of history you want to explore as well as deciding a scope for your game (or at least for the first “season” of your game). There are five different eras available and most of them are built around which Avatar is currently alive and in action. Your choices for the era of the campaign include:

  • The Kyoshi Era, a time of outlaw factions and rampant political corruption
  • The Roku Era, an uneasy peacetime with nationalism brewing trouble behind the scenes
  • The Hundred-Year War, where the Fire Nation is colonizing the world after the genocide of the Air Nomads
  • The Aang Era, the uncomfortable and challenging task of healing a world torn apart by war
  • The Korra Era, where technology and easier access to the spirits is ushering in a strange new world

While the book has some vague descriptions of what each era is like or what kind of possible stories could be told during each time, in my view there is an assumption that you have some degree of familiarity with the setting. In discussing our campaign, my group found the Roku era to be one of the less promising options because the source material spends so much less time elaborating on what that time period is like. Conversely, the vast level of detail available about Kyoshi, Korra, and the Hundred-Year War make those timeframes appealing. Dealing with the daofei or playing as Fifth Nation pirates, becoming members of a pro-bending team, trying to protect the few Air Nomads who survived the burning of the air temples – ideas like these jumped out easily to me due to my familiarity with the timeframes in which these stories could be told, and these became the eras that my players were the most interested in as well.

In addition to deciding your era of history you also determine the scale of your game – in other words, how much of the world your campaign is likely to explore. The book provides examples as focused as a single temple up to as broad as “everywhere the seas touch,” a degree of flexibility that makes sense given the scale of Korra versus the scale of ATLA. That said, I would have liked to see some more clearly outlined travel rules for games of a larger scale. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show in which travel plays a significant part, and I’ve mentioned in the past about how that show helped me to get a better understanding of how to effectively run travel for Ryuutama. So it struck me as odd that as best as I can tell, you’re meant to handle any challenges of the road with really broad and generic moves like rely on your skills and training or push your luck rather than having moves that specifically handle the process of going from place to place.

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The Inciting Incident

After determining your campaign setting and scale, you determine the inciting incident. The book describes this as something of a pilot episode for your game – it’s what brings the characters together and gives them a shared goal to work towards. You build the inciting incident in three acts, each of which offers a series of prompts to help inspire you with ideas about how the characters met and what they accomplished together during that first adventure. In the beginning, I was concerned that it would be odd to just talk about the inciting incident rather than actually playing it out as a session. However, as we had our discussion and details began to came together, I came to see the value of approaching the pilot episode in this way. There’s a meme in the world of TTRPGs of the most stereotypical way of all the characters getting together: “you meet in a tavern.” A lot of games within the Powered by the Apocalypse design philosophy (to which this game owes some of its inspiration as well) circumvent the tavern approach by having all the characters already know each other, but the ways they met and the experiences they may have had together can be pretty vague. Avatar Legends defines those things clearly in the inciting incident, but still makes it something you discuss rather than simply playing out so that when the game starts you can get right to the action.

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Character Creation

A decent chunk of the quickstart rules are devoted to character creation. If you want to play with pre-generated characters that is certainly an option, but naturally the fun of playing in the world of Avatar is telling your own stories within it. My group was eager to make our own story, and that meant our own characters too. You start this process by choosing a playbook, what you might call in another game your character’s archetype or class. Your playbook determines multiple things about your character – most of your starting stats, a special feature that defines your character, the selection of special moves you can choose from in the beginning, and what two principles are on your balance track (more on that later). This is another area where if you are familiar with the full breadth of Avatar lore, you’ll be able to pretty easily identify which playbooks are meant to capture which characters. The Idealist, for example, is clearly modeled off of Katara, while the Guardian is based on Rangi from the Kyoshi novels. This is useful for playing with younger players; if your kid wants to make a character like Aang there is a clear and obvious path for you to do that by choosing The Icon. If you’re planning on playing this with a group of adults and those adults have a lot of RPG experience, you may find yourself wishing the classes were a little less obviously affiliated with specific characters to make it easier to have your own flavor for each one. That was my experience, anyway.

Once you’ve chosen a playbook, character creation is as simple as filling out the details on that playbook. The book has a list of name choices based on what nationality you choose for your character, the character sheet itself has checkboxes for personality details and a box to fill out your appearance, and most mechanical details are determined by simply choosing options from a list. The Successor playbook, for example, has a feature for coming from a wealthy family and you get to decide where your family’s wealth and power comes from, as well as what types of resources that gives your character easy access to. The Bold, on the other hand, chooses four different activities for what is essentially a “bucket list” which gives benefits when the activities are completed. Unlike more complicated RPG books where the character creation chapter is often a broad overview and you have to jump back and forth between that and specific chapters that talk about focused concepts in more detail, you can easily follow the character creation chapter in the quickstart from start to finish and have fully-formed characters ready to play with minimal page flipping. How fast that process will be will depend on your group dynamics, but an experienced group that knows how the game works will be able to make decisions and check off all the requisite boxes pretty quickly.

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Gameplay

Overview

Like most games Powered by the Apocalypse, Avatar Legends uses moves to define the core actions you take in the game. Most moves are made up of a trigger, or a condition in which the move takes place, followed by a dice roll and then outcomes based on how successful the roll is. A roll of 10+ is a full success with zero or minimal complications; a roll between 7-9 is a partial success which costs the player something or asks them to make a difficult choice; and a roll of 6- is a miss, where the player probably doesn’t accomplish what they were trying to do and the GM gets to make a move instead. Moves drive the core experience of playing Avatar Legends and are broken down into three broad types:

  • Basic moves, which broadly cover most of the common actions your characters will take in the game
  • Balance moves, which are focused on the tension between two principles which are important to your character
  • Combat moves, which break down battles into a series of short but thought-out exchanges of blows

The following sections will discuss each move category in detail.

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Basic Moves

In most PbtA games, the basic moves represent the most common actions you are taking in the game, covering a broad swath of possibilities in a small selection of mechanical resolutions. There are eight basic moves in Avatar Legends, and they are as follows:

  • Plead, for convincing an NPC that cares about you to go along with what you want
  • Push your luck, for boldly pressing onward in a clearly risky circumstance
  • Rely on your skills and training, for using skills from your background or your bending training to affect the world
  • Assess the situation, for investigating a scene and getting benefits from the answers you learn
  • Intimidate, for using threat of consequences to push someone to back down or give in to you
  • Trick, for deceiving or fooling an NPC
  • Comfort or support, for having an honest conversation with an ally to work through their feelings
  • Helping, for giving a flat bonus to another character’s move

You can get a strong idea of the substance of a game by looking at which actions are treated with nuance and which ones are dealt with in broad strokes. Earlier I mentioned the game Ryuutama while discussing travel mechanics – Ryuutama breaks down each day of travel in a very specific way with multiple dice roles because it is a game that is very much about traveling. Compare that to something like Dungeon World which has one really broad move for quickly brushing over long-distance travel – Dungeon World is very much not about traveling. The more attention a game gives to a concept the more important that concept is in terms of what you will do the most frequently when you play. In that sense, the common theme of moves such as plead, intimidate, trick, and comfort or support points to a system where social interactions between characters is meant to be a major part of the game. This focus on character interaction as an important system for play is also reinforced by the balance rules as well as the fact that the main form of tracking “harm” or “health” in this game is actually defined in terms of emotional conditions like anger, insecurity, and fear. If you’re used to playing a more “traditional” action TTRPG like Dungeons & Dragons then this will feel really different in practice. Talking about how your character feels in a particular situation is flavor text in many games. Avatar puts those feelings front and center by mechanizing them, and it gives the game a flavor of emotional drama that is true to the action of the show.

Here’s an example. In ATLA there’s an episode early in season two where the heroes have just recruited Toph and they are being chased all over hill and country by Azula and her best friends. As the characters continue to fail to get away from Azula, they become more exhausted and their feelings start to get the better of them, with Katara and Toph in particular fighting more and more as they go on. When Toph finally becomes so overwhelmed that she leaves, she runs into Iroh, who tells her an anecdote about his experience with Zuko and encourages her to reunite with her friends. This could easily be played out in Avatar Legends as a series of rely on your skills and training or push your luck rolls, with Toph accumulating conditions like Angry and Guilty as she fails or only partially succeeds at these moves. In her moment with Iroh, he comforts and supports her, removing some of that emotional strain and enabling her to better accomplish what she needs to do.

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Balance Moves

One of the most unique mechanics of Avatar Legends is a system called balance. Each character in Avatar Legends has a balance chart based on their playbook. The chart is a diagram of the twin spirits Tui and La, the moon and the ocean, who represent the opposed and yet interconnected forces of yin and yang. On each side of the chart is one of two principles that is important to the character. The Hammer, for example, is torn between Force (solving problems with violence) and Care (finding pacifist solutions to problems). Meanwhile the Icon must find balance between their Role (a spiritually significant role in society burdened with expectations) and their Freedom (the ability to choose one’s own course in life without the burden of responsibility). As a character moves towards one side of the chart they weaken on the other; going overboard on either side leads to significant negative consequences. Ideally, characters want to stay at their center, the place of perfect balance where they are at their most powerful. But the other characters in the setting and the difficult choices they must make will always push them towards one side or another. There are five balance moves for playing out these moments:

  • Live up to your principle, for using a principle instead of one of your character’s stats when acting in accordance with your beliefs
  • Call someone out, for demanding that someone else live up to the principles they hold
  • Deny a callout, for refusing when someone else tries to manipulate you in the name of a principle you hold
  • Resist shifting your balance, for staying centered rather than having your balance influenced by the words or deeds of others
  • Lose your balance, for when you lean too strongly into one of your principles and make a mistake as a result

The setting of Avatar is deeply philosophical and the characters who exist in that setting are torn between important ideals. From Kyoshi’s decision to spare a child governor to Korra’s choice to leave the spirit portals open during Harmonic Convergence, the characters make big choices with big consequences and everyone around them makes an effort to influence what those choices might be. It’s powerful during play when an NPC makes a statement to a character and the GM says “hey player, this lady is trying to shift your balance. Do you go along with it? Or are you going to stand your ground?” The big climax of our second session came when the heroes defeated the leader of an enemy squad and had him lying at their mercy. Another NPC with a grudge expressed her intent to kill the man while he was passed out on the floor. Would anyone try to stop her? One player agreed that killing him was the right choice and didn’t interfere. Another stepped in momentarily but when the NPC pushed on her principles, she stopped resisting. The final player stood his ground, but as the Hammer the NPC was easily able to use his force principle against him. He denied the callout and got a good roll, allowing him to clear a condition and stand his ground to prevent the man from being killed. It was a powerful moment that said something about every character involved, and captured the sort of philosophical drama that you would expect to see in the shows or comics in this same world.

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Combat Moves

Naturally a big part of the Avatar experience is the combat, these beautifully choreographed martial arts battles which send water, earth, fire, and air flying about as characters face off against one another. Having dedicated rules to describe how these battles function is a not-insignificant part of the quickstart book. Combat takes place in a series of exchanges, trading two or three blows in a fluid sequence of actions before settling momentarily before the next exchange. During an exchange, each fighter chooses an approach from the following list:

  • Defend and Respond
  • Advance and Attack
  • Evade and Observe

You can think of these approaches as the three jing briefly discussed in ATLA and explored a bit more deeply in the Kyoshi novels, each move covering negative, positive, and neutral jing respectively. Your approach determines which techniques you have access to, with a technique being a specific action with a defined mechanical effect. This is the part of the game that went through the most changes from version 1.0 to 2.0 so I won’t discuss the techniques of the game in detail – what I will say is that based on what I have read of 2.0’s combat, it does seem more balanced and less susceptible to gamebreaking loopholes than the techniques as they were written in 1.0. Combat to me is the part of Avatar Legends that still needs the most playtesting before the full version of the game hits shelves; the rigid turn structure, while useful for new RPG players in creating defined timeframes during which they make choices, detracts from the fluidity and creativity of Avatar combat to some degree. Iroh describes in ATLA how a waterbender’s defense becomes their offense, and the highly structured combat rules seem to take away from the ability to, say, catch a blast of water thrown by your opponent, turn it into icicles, and fling it back with interest.

As the gamemaster for my group, combat also gave me the most resistance in terms of creating mechanical challenges for my players. Creating NPCs to push on the balance of the heroes is simple and intuitive. The Bold is divided between Loyalty and Confidence? What if she is faced with an NPC who doesn’t believe she’s ready to do what’s necessary to protect their shared culture? Giving that NPC a name, a drive, and a principle is all I have to do in order to begin playing jump rope with the line between the Bold’s principles, upsetting that balance and pushing on it in interesting ways that create great story opportunities. But creating an NPC who provides an interesting challenge in combat is a lot more complicated. NPCs only get one technique unless they operate in large groups or the players shift their balance. This makes it very difficult to create a single powerful opponent capable of easily standing against the group of heroes, someone like Azula or Combustion Man. Being trapped to one approach per exchange means that character either can’t protect themselves, can’t learn information, or can’t attack unless they are accompanied by minion characters. Unlike the other mechanics in the game, this is the one part of Avatar Legends that I think struggles to recreate the kind of experiences that you might see in the shows or read about in the books. The combat isn’t bad per se, but in a game where the major selling point is how much it recreates the specific experience of the Avatar setting, not being able to capture the beauty, style, and stakes of those battles is definitely a bummer.

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Final Thoughts

Avatar Legends is a game with a ton of promise. In the moments where it best captured the vibe of Avatar, it felt great to be telling our own stories in a world that everyone at my table loves and has bonded over in years past. But particularly where the combat mechanisms are concerned, it’s clear that there’s still work to be done before the full game releases. One of the players at my table, when I asked how everyone was feeling about the game, put it like this: “it’s really fun, but I can feel that it’s in beta.” This version of the game thankfully is still early, and with the Kickstarter having only just gone live at the time of posting I feel that there is plenty of opportunity for refinement. The fact that the section of the game I was most worried about – the combat – is the part of the game that was most heavily revamped in version 2.0 shows that the design team knows what they need to work on and they are putting in the effort to find what creates the best experience at the table. And the other aspects of the game shine brightly, particularly the balance system and mechanizing the emotional state of the characters as they struggle.

The world of Avatar is full of colorful and fascinating characters with compelling histories and relationships. The way they interact and support each other while having to make tough decisions in a challenging world is a huge part of the appeal of this setting. Aang’s loss of hope when Appa disappears and its restoration when he and his friends aid in the birth of a newborn child, Zuko sobbing on the floor as he apologizes to his uncle before Iroh captures him in an embrace, Korra willfully putting herself into Zaheer’s clutches to protect Tenzin and his children despite the overwhelming personal risk, and the strength she shows in overcoming the trauma caused by those events – Avatar thrives on friendships and philosophies, terrible mistakes and hard-earned redemption. Avatar Legends skillfully captures that spirit and the designers have crafted mechanics which actively push you in that direction by codifying your emotions and beliefs into the rules. I’m excited for where this game is going and eager to add the newest rules to our sessions as my friends and I explore this world together.

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