Game Pile: Avatar Legends, the Tabletop Roleplaying Game

Avatar: The Last Airbender and its superior sequel (because I like it more) The Legend of Korra are extremely well-loved cartoons of their generation. Then on kickstarter, an official TTRPG version of it made ten MILLION dollars. It’s out now, and what do I think of it?

Who is Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game For?

Script and outline below the fold!~

I’m not doing it.

<avatar opening joke>

Avatar Legends is a Tabletop RPG using the Powered By the Apocalypse game engine, set in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender a cartoon series that ran from 2005 to 2008, and The Legend Of Korra, a series that limped from 2012 to 2014. Subsequently expanded in a number of comics volumes, these series have been praised for being fun, exciting, well-told, continuity-driven, inclusive and interesting, and mostly criticised as Not Being As Good As The First One.

And they are fun, and now we have a roleplaying game to continue having different kinds of fun in this world of hybrid creatures, elemental martial arts, steampunk mecha, and extradimensional spirituality.

Up front, some disclaimers: First, I backed this game on kickstarter. I did so because I like the show it’s from. Second, the kickstarter for this game was for ten million dollars, so we’re just going to want to keep that in mind. Third, I have no intention of addressing ‘how good’ a job this game does at representing the Asian and Indigenous cultures it uses as inspiration, because what would I know about that and how good a job could I possibly do discussing it?

Also when discussing Powered By The Apocalypse, I have an expertise gap. I don’t know Powered By The Apocalypse, as a game. I am aware of it, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play in it.

If you’re particularly of a mind to dislike this game, I have now offered you your rhetorical trapdoor: After all, every good thing this game is doing you can attribute to PBTA and not the game product Avatar Legends. You can then make those arguments in my comment section (for the engagement) and I, someone non-expert in the game, will have nothing to say in response to that except an enthusiastic variant on ‘way to go, sport.’

Instead, I’m going to present what I know of PBTA from this book and this book alone. If you’re the kind of person who starts with the dice, it’s a 2d6 system; you’re rolling dice, trying to hit a fixed success or failure threshold; seven for partial success, ten plus for a great success. You’re adding to this a small number of modest bonuses: no more than a +4 or a -3; these derive first from basic categories, in this case, your Creativity, Focus, Harmony and Passion.

Players don’t have ‘powers’ but they do have ‘moves’ – actions that represent how their character uniquely approaches the world. There’s a set of basic tools that everyone can use, and then there are character-specific ones. These can be special interactions that rely on a roll or even happen automatically, and how they’re named is a really powerful tool for setting the tone of how the power is meant to be used and when.

Rather than track hit points, the game gives you a building consequence called Fatigue, and a handful of standard conditions that represent the character being worn out, or losing options for what they can do in a scene. These include stuff like being ‘afraid,’ which makes you worse at threatening people or calling them out.  You get rid of these conditions by doing something that gives into them – like, if you’re afraid, you might run away, and then you lose the ‘afraid’ conditioned. 

The result is the system looks like it’s very mindful of both the way it’s being used to construct a story. That works really well for the system, because everything is discussed in terms of this conversation; things within a scene often don’t need to be tracked, but the results of scenes do. I like that! There’s also a conversation included about how the story works only if people trust everyone is sticking to the same narrative; less ‘the DM is the arbiter of the plot’ and more ‘everyone is involved in remembering this story.’

Character building in this system is approached in terms of an archetype’s role in a story. Many games, games I’m used to, approach characters as either entirely free-form, and defined by what capacities they choose to have, like a point-based system, or look at characters in terms of the kinds of things they could do – barbarians tend to be strong and tough, for example, and flormancers have studied the ways of flowers. Instead of looking at how you do things, this system wants you to consider the character’s roles in a more analytical model of the story. After all, you might have two characters who look and behave extremely similarly in a story, like the Bash Brothers from vitally important sports media The Mighty Ducks, but those two characters may be mostly the same kind of heavy hitting bruiser type, but their roles in a story could be completely different.

That’s what I’ve been able to understand about PBTA as a whole from this book. And if that’s mostly correct, then yeah this book is doing a good job of conveying the system as a whole. 

What of this book, though?

It looks nice. 

Clear use of graphics, visual motif

Appropriate art

It looks like the show

The explainer of roleplaying as a system is time-bound; it is well-written from first principles, it avoids jargon and it introduces its terms well.

Starting at page 15, then there’s an extensive history of the four eras of the world across four countries, which runs through major conflicts across each era, major characters, and the current public view of The Avatar.

culminating in the beginning of character creation at page 107

… which explains the basics of moves, and then at page 163 we start talking about your playbooks

I bolocked over Exalted for this kind of thing, after all

I don’t like it here, but there’s a chance that this winds up putting the playbooks in a space where the physical book easily falls open

The thing is, playbooks are a great way to give people the tools they need to frame their relationship to the world

This is annoying because on the one hand this is actually relevant to the game once you have an idea of where you are; it feels backwards to explain the setting before you explain the plater the kind of place they can have in it

From the character creation we have a thorough description of ways characters can progress, with a system of experience that is about answering sets of questions, how to change a playbook, and ways to ‘specialise’ your bending

After that, there are three chapters of Gamemaster guide stuff, which cover running the game in a short-term, immediate scene-to-scene style stuff, how to structure a longer campaign, and then how to structure an adventure, complete with an example.

The book then wraps up with appendices about techniques, some NPCs, and play materials like character sheets.

As a book, it’s cool!

Focus now on your character:

Characters have this idea of a ‘balance.’ This is a two-side conflict you can balance between and NPCs can force you to confront.

Your Balance is an interesting idea and gives a natural path to follow over time that has a natural impetus

It by necessity envisions that there is danger in straying too readily too far from a centre

It introduces limit breaks, like Exalted has; times when your character has an eruption of their values, does something rash then recovers

If you change your balance enough, you may wind up giving up on that conflict because you made a choice for it. You can then retire the character (if you’re done) or you can move them to a new playbook with a new conflict, keeping traits from your old one

This is cool and badass because it presents you with a track for committing to an ideal and not just the natural ‘oh hey everything is in the centre’ that I feared at first.

Basically, making a choice and committing to an ideal is better than not, and it can lend you strength

This also gives every character a deliberate momentum

The huge history section frustrates me because on the one hand it’s structured not as a sequence of historical events but as a vision of a place in time, where being forward or back by a few years isn’t important, but instead the questions of ‘why are things the way there are’ hover about you. It’s about the place of the time.

Similarly, giving you a rundown on the avatar of each era is meaningful because the whole point of the setting is the avatar is the most important person in the world, and odds are good you have an opinion on them.

This is an example of pop culture in a world that doesn’t have what we think of as pop culture

Your characters who can bend can bend because bending is inherent to a people. It’s not stated explicitly whether the bending is inherent to a people genetically, though. I dislike it either way, but there are ways you can frame it in your game that makes it work

There’s this idea of affordance – think of it as ‘the buttons available to you to push.’

I have been cautious about talking about this game in public, because it seems that there’s a body of TTRPG discourse that feels bad faith to me. There are lots of arguments to be had about the world of a TV series for children made by the company that sells Spongebob Squarepants that aired from 2005 to 2008 doesn’t match up to what modern TTRPG creators think it should, and that feels like a criticism that is easily met with a ‘so what?’

I didn’t expect a game made in part with the blessing of Nickelodeon to invoke seizing the means of production. The game is still modelled on the story it’s modelled on: A story about young adults dealing with a world where even the most obvious of evils is only to be resisted, not destroyed. A world where there is a literal chosen one, and where one-ness and a resistance to desire are important.

It’s expressed in the game pretty clearly. For example there’s an entire section about not killing, where even though you may be playing your own characters, in your own version of the Avatar universe, the game asserts that characters ‘don’t kill.’ It doesn’t close the door on it, and obviously at your table, you can do what you like with the swords and guns your characters carry, but it’s still written as if ‘player characters don’t kill.’ By default, characters are trapped, imprisoned or captured. There’s always a way out, there’s always hope for things, and there’s a point where things won’t escalate further.

Who is it for?

Who is it NOT for?

If I was going to level a criticism against this game, it would be that this game doesn’t feel like it has space for someone who isn’t already invested in the world already. Now, that’s something that tie-in media can always rely on as an excuse; after all, why would you buy the Avatar Legends RPG if you weren’t already interested in the Avatar setting? So from the sense of humour to the archetypes to the reference pool, the world is full of things that make sense primarily if you’re already aware of them from the other media. Is that a bad thing?

I mean, in a way. If four people at the table know this world and the fifth doesn’t, the book isn’t going to convince the fifth on its own. It’s not a mind-changer.

What did you expect?

But then, what could you expect of the powered-by-the-apocalypse tie-in game to an enormously successful Nickelodeon property? How is it meant to look? It’s a pretty book, it’s well-edited, it’s solid in the ways I would want it to be.

The thing that confuses me about this game is that this is the most successful TTRPG kickstarter ever. It raised ten million dollars. Is it fifty-five times ‘better made’ than Blades in the Dark? Is it two hundred times ‘better made’ than smaller fare like Hard Wired Island? Does it invite you into its world better, and more readily than Brinkwood?

Honestly, no?  

The most damning thing I can say about Avatar Legends is that it’s exactly as decent as expected. It offers me something I knew I wanted, and it’s about as good as I’d expect it to be. If I was heavily invested in the TTRPG community on kickstarter, though, I wouldn’t hold this up as an example of what to do, because with all of its advantages, it has just made a good game that meets the standard.

It’s fine.

To damn with faint praise, it’s fine.