Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
This week we’re diving into Magpie Games’ new Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game. Digital copies of the rulebook are being delivered for kickstarters and physical products should be on their way out soon and I’ve been working my way through this ~300 page tome of Avatar shenanigans to see just what we’re dealing with.
My Avatar bona fides go back almost to the beginning, one of my friends looped me in shortly before the end of ATLA Book 1 and I’ve been following the series ever since. I’ll admit I haven’t kept up with all of the comics as thoroughly and the lore is definitely drawing from those as well. So right out of the gate, if you don’t want anything spoiled, catch up on your Avatar comics (ATLA and Korra, both) first. There is also an important novel about the Kyoshi era that fully informs her era of the game so a similar warning there.
Powered by the Apocalypse
So first things first, what system are we working with? Unlike Power Rangers RPG’s strange choice to build an original (and very crunchy) system, Avatar Legends has taken a more logical route and decided to build their game on the Powered by the Apocalypse system which originated in Apocalypse World but is perhaps even better known today for the myriad of hacks and spin offs like Monster of the Week, Masks, Blades in the Dark and Dungeon World.
If you already know the basics of PbtA games skip ahead!
For those who aren’t familiar, PbtA uses a simple 2d6 + stat (-2 through +3 usually) resolution mechanic. Unlike many games, PbtA uses a graduated success mechanism. On a 6 or lower the result is truly bad, usually causing severe consequences for the actor or the people around them. On a 7-9 they get a mixed result, perhaps it doesn’t work as well as intended or there is a cost or side effects. On a 10+ the result is great either without complications or coming with additional bonuses. A 12+ is the equivalent of a D20 system's natural 20, usually triggering special abilities or particularly exceptional results (sometimes reliant on specific advancement features).
PbtA also uses the playbook system. Rather than building from a chart, each player has a small self contained character/rule sheet that describes not only their character but simple descriptions of the game’s actions and even the level up mechanics. These playbooks have more flavor than a D&D character sheet, more specifically implying something of the vibe and aesthetic of the character.
PbtA is also notable for having a purely responsive game master when it comes to actual mechanics. PbtA GMs almost never roll. Negative consequences trigger off of the players’ attempts and failures rather than the GM’s successes. It's also a narrative forward system. Players describe their character’s actions first and the GM interprets that to a specific “move” from the player’s playbook, calling for the appropriate roll.
If you know PbtA basics pick back up here!
So that’s PbtA in general. But Avatar puts their own unique spin on it. The 4 core attributes are Creativity, Focus, Harmony and Passion. These provide the modifiers for various moves. You start with a basic set from your playbook and have opportunities to improve them through advancement.
Rather than tracking hit points or harm, Legends uses a single health metric called “Fatigue.” Using certain abilities costs fatigue and being subject to certain negative effects causes it to fall (like damage). When you lose all 5 marks of your Fatigue bar, many of your abilities will be unavailable and the next point of fatigue you lose will give you a condition.
Conditions are maybe one of the smartest inclusions in the Avatar Legends system. Each condition is both a mechanical detriment and a roleplaying cue. Afraid, Angry, Guilty, Insecure and Troubled. Each one gives penalties to specific moves and has to be resolved by diving into that emotional state. For example, an angry character takes a penalty to both “guide and comfort” and “assess a situation” and to clear their anger condition they have to break something or lash out at a friend. If all 5 conditions are marked and you need to mark another you are “taken out” which drops you out of the scene. You’ll notice that this does not specify death, allowing for dramatic character arcs that hit rock bottom but don’t necessarily end a character’s career.
Another new and substantial feature, and maybe one of the hardest to follow, is the Balance system. Each character has 2 principles, attached to their playbook. These represent the sort of ethical equilibrium that each character is living in. It’s not a good/evil system but more of a competing set of priorities. Each character has both a Balance (which is their current state) and a Center (where they default back to over time).
For example, the Adamant is a sort of revolutionary idealist figure. Their principles are Restraint and Results, reflecting the internal conflict between ethical and social norms (and even human safety) and the desire for change. This most archetypal Adamant would definitely be Jet, who wanted to overthrow the Fire Kingdom’s reign in the Earth Kingdom so badly that he would cause massive harm to innocents. This system reflects that internal struggle. Certain of your own moves can push you towards or away from an ideal or back to center (as can the abilities of NPCs or your allies). Being more extreme gives you a better bonus to rolls that use that ideal but give you a corresponding penalty in the other direction. When you are at your center you can also use a special game changing ability (which has to be unlocked through leveling advancement first).
What makes this balance so peculiar is that your center can actually shift. You can even lose one of your ideals entirely. But there is an innate danger to that. If your balance shifts off the edge of your Ideals chart (3+ points from center) your character is taken out of the scene and your center permanently shifts. But if your center shifts off the edge of your ideals chart it's much more severe. While death mechanics aren’t spelled out, it is referenced several times that this might be the time to retire or radically alter your character.
The core rulebook has launched with 10 playbooks. The Adamant, the Idealist, the Bold, the Pillar, The Guardian, the Prodigy, the Hammer, the Rogue, the Icon and the Successor. Magpie games seems to be planning to release several more playbooks as the all of the kickstarter bonuses and add ons are completed. Between these you should be able to make a unque character firmly in the avatar vibe. Each playbook only has 4 or 5 abilities or "moves" and you can only choose 2 at character creation (picking up more through advancement).
While there isn’t a traditional “health” system or many of the mechanics of tactical combat you might expect, there is still a fairly robust combat system. Playbooks themselves are ability neutral. Each Character will pick a specialty, either one of the bending elements, weapons or technology.
A lot of combat is handled through “Techniques.” Making daggers out of flame, lashing with a whip of water or throwing a bomb. Every (campaign) character starts with one technique “mastered”, which means it is easily usable, and one technique “learned”, which means it is still only theoretical and difficult to use. In between these two states is “practiced” where the character has used the move in battle and still finds it difficult to pull off every time. Notably, outside these original techniques and a few specific playbook abilities, none of the technique learning is mechanical. Instead, learning new techniques and even mastering them are all narratively driven. Characters have to find a special scroll or preferably find a master to learn the technique from. This means the GM is entirely controlling the pace of acquisition.
An excellent TTRPG for a very very specific audience
So we’ve talked a lot about the mechanics but what does it all add up to? Some thoughts:
So the TLDR of it all?
If you love Avatar and are comfortable with narrative focused games (especially if you already know PbtA) you're going to have a lot here for you. The lore is well presented and they've really expertly woven together certain Avatar vibes with the PbtA system. I honestly don't know if I've ever read a better system for playing out these sorts of underlying emotional vibes that are so common in YA and shonen material. Now, if you want something more structured and tactical this might not quite be what you're looking for.
So what are y'alls thoughts? Have you gotten to do some playtesting or checked out the actual plays? Was there anything you evaluated differently?
Drop a comment and let me know!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.