Review – Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game

My kids and I all enjoyed Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. We’ve read the comics. My noodle-obsessed 8-year-old even has an Avatar-branded ramen bowl. And Magpie Games has produced several excellent roleplaying games, from the crowd-pleasing young superhero RPG Masks: A New Generation to the phantasmagoric horror of Bluebeard’s Bride. So it took me approximately 0.43 seconds to buy in when Magpie launched a crowdfunding campaign for the Avatar Legends Roleplaying Game (if you didn’t back, a Quickstart is available while you’re waiting for the full release). I have not been disappointed.

The Basics – Setting

Avatar Legends is, of course, set in the Avatarverse. Games can take place in five eras, mostly defined by who the Avatar was at the time – the Kyoshi era, the Roku era, the Hundred Year War Era, the Aang era, and the Korra era (if you’re a stickler about timelines, the Aang and Korra eras are officially defined as occurring after the TV shows and after certain events from the comics). Each era has a certain political arrangement and certain technology available, but just as importantly each era highlights different sorts of conflicts and themes. The Kyoshi era features a fluid political situation, where crime and corruption are frequent threats. The Roku era features established nations and high tensions, where characters may attempt to keep an uneasy peace. The Hundred Years War era (set just before Aang wakes up) features the most widespread physical conflict of any era, and the most obvious macro level ‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys’ conflict for players who want to battle against a tyrannical system. The Aang era presents a hopeful time of healing. The Korra era is most distinguished by modernization and the rise of Republic City.

But the core themes of the game remain, regardless of what era is used – the player characters are a band of heroes, probably from diverse backgrounds, who have come together to do what’s right while balancing their own internal principles and growing as people. You’re very much putting together your own Aang/Korra squad and exploring the themes of the shows.

Like in the shows, there will probably be a lot of benders in the typical group. With the exception of airbenders in the Hundred Years War era, player can freely chose to make benders of the air, earth, fire, and water varieties. Instead of being a bender, a character might instead have weapons training (like Sokka) or technology training (like Asami).

The Basics – Character Creation

But something I really like about Avatar Legends is that what kind of bender a character is, or if they’re a bender at all, isn’t really the most mechanically defining thing about a character. The most significant thing about a character is their playbook (for those not familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) roleplaying games, ‘playbook’ is legacy terminology). In Avatar Legends, playbooks are based around character archetypes focused on certain worldviews and principles.

For example, the Adamant is deeply committed to a cause and willing to break all of the rules if it means accomplishing what they see as right. The Adamant struggles to balance achieving results with showing restraint – their growth as a character might involve realizing that in the long run their right thing is best achieved by paying attention to the consequences their actions have on others (or maybe they go off the rails and break the world trying to fix it; hey, it’s your game). In addition to those drives, the playbook provides starting stat modifiers, background questions on the character that need to be answered, ways that the character connects to other player characters, and moves specific to that playbook. The Adamant, for example, always has a lodestar – the one other member of the group that they’re really willing to let their guard down around. Then each Adamant has other moves to choose from, like being better at awkwardly comforting other characters by admitting their insecurities, or verbally needling an opponent to get them to reveal their motivations.

The ten core playbooks are:

  • The Adamant (see above);
  • The Bold wants to get others to buy into their facade of self-confidence;
  • The Guardian wants to protect those around them, but especially their ward (one of the other player characters);
  • The Hammer sees everything as a nail;
  • The Icon is supposed to live up to am honored role that society has assigned them, but that they aren’t sure they want;
  • The Idealist has hope despite a painful past, and wants to inspire everyone else;
  • The Pillar is is a team player who help the group work well together;
  • The Prodigy is extraordinarily skilled – and isn’t going to let anyone else forget it;
  • The Rogue is a troublemaker; and
  • The Successor comes from a dark lineage that they must struggle against.

After choosing a playbook, each character gets up to two backgrounds out of military, monastic, outlaw, privileged, urban, and wilderness.

The second thing I really like about character creation in Avatar Legends is that it doesn’t actually start with creating the character – it starts with creating the group. The GM or the whole group (depending on how much of a plan the GM has) lays down the basics. Which era does the game take place in? What’s the scope of the story – localized or world-spanning? What’s the group’s focus going to be? Is there a particular foe to defeat or friend to rescue? Is the group trying to learn about the past or change current society? Then the players have to outline an “inciting incident” – how the characters came together as a group. Basically, the players are outlining the first episode of the show; actual play starts with episode two. The players’ outline will create a three-act episode, likely identifying an ally, a powerful figure who opposes them, and some sort of thing or location of importance. Maybe that first mission together was a great success … and maybe it wasn’t. However it goes, the group has a purpose, a friend, and powerful enemy, and a lead. Only then do players start picking playbooks, coming up with character concepts, and deciding what sort of bender (or otherwise) they are. I really like this method because for a story-based roleplaying game it is so important for the characters to be tied together and for there to be some idea of what the group is about. Powered by the Apocalypse games pretty automatically do some of that anyway, but it’s one of those things that it’s hard to get enough of. I’ve played in too many games that almost immediately fell apart because the characters didn’t really have anything to do with it other or any goals in common.

Another thing that can say a lot about what’s important to a game is how characters gain experience and grow over the course of a campaign. A game giving experience for defeating monsters is combat encourages players to go get in a lot of fights. A game giving experience for exploration makes players want to see what’s over the next hill. Avatar Legends gives all characters experience for three things (1) learning something noteworthy about the world; (2) stopping a threat or otherwise solving a problem; and (3) moving towards a balance between the character’s principles. In addition, each playbook has a unique growth question. The Adamant playbook, for example, asks whether the character sought support or guidance from others. It’s literally something the character needs to do in order to grow as a person.

The Basics – Mechanics

So, I mentioned stats above, and almost every roleplaying game needs some sort of method of conflict resolution, and I should probably mention that at some point. Like all Powered by the Apocalypse games, conflict resolution in Avatar Legends means rolling two six-sided dice (2d6), adding them together, and adding the applicable stat modifier. Characters in Avatar Legends share four stats – Creativity, Focus, Harmony, and Passion. Stat bonuses are small, often only +/-1 and never more than +/-3. These small modifiers are still a big deal because the target number is a 7 and there’s a big statistical ‘hump’ at 7 when you’re rolling 2d6. Rolling a 7-9 is something of a partial success, or perhaps a success at a cost. Rolling a 10+ is a more thorough success.

When do those rolls happen? Well, Powered by the Apocalypse games live by the philosophy of if you want to do it, you have to do it. That is, you can’t simply declare that you’re using a mechanical “move.” Instead, you narratively describe what your character is doing, and if that narrative description lines up with one of the game’s moves, then the mechanic kicks in. You can’t just say “I mark fatigue to help and give +1” or “I roll intimidate.” You describe what your character is doing or saying. If what you describe actually helps another player character, then the move triggers. If what you describe might be intimidating to that guard, the move triggers and you roll.

A well-designed Powered by the Apocalypse game chooses moves so that the activities that are important to the themes and experience of that particular game are highlighted. So the nature of the moves can say a lot about what’s important to a game and how the game approaches those actions. Outside of combat, the basic moves in Avatar Legends are assess a situation, guide and comfort (anyone), intimidate (an NPC), plead (with an NPC), trick (an NPC), help (another PC), rely on your skills and training, and push your luck. This spread includes several ways of interacting with NPCs (that each use a different stat), a move to encourage emotional support between characters, and a generic ‘figure out what’s up’ move.

What’s notable is that there isn’t anything like a bending move here. Use of bending and a lot of other actions fall under rely on your skills and training or push your luck. If a character is doing something that’s definitely in their wheelhouse, then they’re relying on skills and training. If they’re trying to do something that’s possible, but they’ve never done or trained to do, then it’s pushing their luck. This can make things very fluid, and shows how the game isn’t trying to create some comprehensive list of what every possible bender, weapon master, or technologist can do with their training. In addition to those trainings, this is where backgrounds have a mechanical impact. A character who was an urban outlaw may be able to avoid pursuing police officers by dodging into a crowd by relying on their skills and training – they’ve been doing this since they were a kid. Someone who’s lived a privileged life in a monastery? Not so much.

Those are the only “basic” moves, but there’s another set of moves that are, although not labeled basic, just as important and universal as the basic moves. They’re called balance moves, because they relate to characters’ principles and their balance (or lack thereof) between those principles. The balance moves are live up to your principle, call someone out, deny a callout, and resist shifting your balance. Living up to a principle allows the character to, at a cost, roll with that principle instead of their usual stats. For example, if that Adamant is shifted far towards their Restraint principle, but is usually pretty bad at Harmony – they might want to draw on their Restraint to comfort someone. When you call someone else out on living up to their principles, you can force them to act as you say or pay a penalty. Unlike pleading, intimidating, and tricking, you can call out other player characters. Denying a call out is sort of the flipside of calling someone out. When an NPC calls out a player character, the GM doesn’t roll dice – instead, the player rolls to deny the callout. Similarly, resisting shifting your balance represents a player character trying to hold on to their balance in the face of the emotional impacts of the situation.

Combat and “Damage”

For all the camaraderie and moral considerations that suffuse the Avatarverse, the protagonists spend quite a lot of time getting in fights, and Avatar Legends is no different. Some fights are just resolved using the basic rules above. If the characters need to blow through a pair of random guards during a chase, they’ll probably just be relying on their skills and training – the guards are really just obstacles and an extended fight scene would just detract from the chase. Think of it like a show – would the show stop and spend several minutes on Korra knocking a couple of guards out of the way while she’s chasing Amon? Of course not. So there’s no reason for the game to do it either.

But when a fight is interesting and important, Avatar Legends has a much more developed combat system. Full combat in Avatar Legends is divided into exchanges. There might be multiple exchanges without interruption, or there might be breaks in between – think of how in the show two benders might exchange attacks, then continue a conversation about the source of their conflict, then go back to fighting again.

In each exchange, each combatant has to choose one of three approaches – defend/maneuver, advance/attack, or evade/observe. Each player character rolls using a stat based on which approach they chose, and the approach used plus the results of that roll determine what techniques the character can use in the exchange. The techniques are divided up by approach – you can’t sense & observe and then use the “Charge” technique. The techniques are also divided up into basic techniques and advanced techniques. Each approach has three basic techniques – so anyone using the defend & maneuver approach will be able to use the Retaliate technique. All of these are universal techniques – a Strike is a Strike whether it’s a rock thrown with earthbending or a boomerang. Remember how I mentioned earlier that there aren’t distinct bending moves? Well, there are distinct bending techniques for once the characters are in a combat exchange (same for the non-bending trainings). So all techniques are tied to a specific approach and are either universal or are tied to a specific training.

Anyone in the appropriate training and appropriate stance can use the basic techniques. Advanced techniques are divided up into learned (you’ve been taught it but never done it), practiced (you’ve used it), and mastered (you’ve accomplished a special task and have full control over the technique). Characters start with one learned technique and one mastered technique; learning more techniques generally requires a teacher (and maybe more, in the case of specialized bending techniques like bloodbending or metalbending). Of course, if a character hasn’t learned an advanced technique at all, they can’t use it. Beyond that the ways that these three categories matter go back to that roll made after choosing an approach. If a character misses on the roll, they can only use a basic technique and there’s a cost. If the character succeeds at their roll (but doesn’t get a 10+), they can use any one basic or mastered technique – but not any learned or practiced techniques. But if the character gets a 10+ then they can use two basic/mastered techniques, one practiced technique, or a learned technique at a cost (and once they’ve used a learned technique in combat, it’s upgraded to a practiced technique).

You might be asking yourself how do these fights end – does someone get knocked down to zero hit points? Well, no. I’m not going to go over all of the things you can do in combat, but how you take “damage” in Avatar Legends says something significant about the game. There are two ways for a fight to the finish to end (of course, characters can just … choose to stop fighting). One is losing your balance. If a character’s balance shifts past one of the ends of their balance track, they’re done for this fight. Maybe they give in. Maybe they run away. Maybe they lose it in a way that harms someone else. It’s up the GM what happens, but they’re done for now. But the more ‘normal’ way to lose a fight is to be taken out. Which brings us to fatigue and conditions. Whenever I’ve said something above about doing something ‘at a cost,’ that cost is often marking fatigue, although it might be marking a condition or shifting balance. When you’re full on fatigue, you can’t do anything that requires marking fatigue – but you might be forced to mark fatigue by someone else. Then you start marking conditions (other circumstances will directly mark conditions). Conditions are emotional – Afraid, Angry, Guilty, Insecure, and Troubled. They impose penalties on some moves. For example, someone who is Angry takes a penalty to guiding and comforting another character. Conditions might be cleared by a move, but absent that they’re cleared by acting on the emotion. A character who is Afraid might clear that condition by running away. A character who is Angry might clear that condition by venting their anger on a friend. I’m discussing conditions here in combat because they’re one of the ways of getting taken out – a character is taken out if they mark all five conditions – but they are a significant part of the game outside of combat as well.

So, as you’ve probably noticed, the complexity level of Avatar Legends really jumps once you’re in a combat exchange. There’s a reason why exchanges are only used for meaningful, interesting fights.

Final Thoughts

I think Avatar Legends is really great. I love the group character creation, including the inciting incident framework. I love that they based the playbooks around personality and emotional conflicts instead of bending styles. The conditions, which first showed up in Masks: A New Generation (which is fantastic), are a great mechanic and really play up the emphasis on interaction and emotion. Combat exchanges are a bit more complex than my platonic ideal of a Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying game, but they also embody the Avatarverse very well – slick martial arts/bending fights are a big part of the shows. And the combat feels very “Avatar.” If the good guys lose, they don’t lose because they got stabbed until they lost all of their hit points. The fight ends because the protagonists got too tired or too frustrated or overwhelmed. The game is great both because it uses mechanics that are solid in a vacuum but more importantly because it uses them to really express the style and significance of the Avatarverse.

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