Playtesting the Official Avatar TTRPG

In case you don’t know, Magpie Games is coming out with the official tabletop roleplaying game based upon Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra!

The Kickstarter starts tomorrow, but they’ve been playtesting the game internally for a few months now through their Curated Play Program (more on that later), and they just published a very complete Quickstart for the game a couple of weeks ago.

Since I’ve played in both the internal and now open playtest, I’d like to share my thoughts with you about the game, and write a little bit about my jump to “professional” Game Master.

You Should Watch Avatar If You Haven’t

This shouldn’t be an unpopular or controversial opinion, but I consider Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar, from now on) to be one of the best western animation series. Period.

What makes Avatar great, in my opinion, is excelling in those aspects that I consider the most important when telling a fantasy story. First, the world-building is near perfect, in the sense that it is simple enough to be easily grok-able, and yet deep enough to be attractive and believable. 

There are Four Nations, each of them focused on one of the classical elements: the Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads. Each of these organizations are both political and cultural, and they take inspiration from the element itself, as you can see by their names; i.e., the earth people are united under a tight, mostly static organization, while the air people are nomads in a much more freeform society.

This type of “archetypal world-building”—so to speak—is, I think, close to ideal. One of the main issues with post-Tolkien world-building is that everybody tries to emulate the Professor by going wide and deep, which is mostly time-consuming and, unless presented really well, it becomes cryptic and difficult to digest for the audience.

The next aspect in which Avatar is great is their cast of characters. Di Martino and Konietzko know how to write great characters, both as protagonists and villains. Even better, they are very adept at going against expectations, giving depth and well-earned character arcs to even the cast’s comic relief. And that’s another thing: Avatar knows how to do humor. Or at least humor that I enjoy, that is.

Finally, Avatar has a strong epic story with a clearly defined endgame from quite early on. Once again, in something that reminds me of The Lord of the Rings, the plot is simple yet powerful: the protagonist has to choose whether to kill the Big Bad Evil Guy and save the world or have the world end but remain “good”. This is a very strong proposition, as it pits the protagonist’s inner sense of self against his outer image/expectations. Tasty, well-written fantasy.

What About Legend of Korra

I have some issues with Legend of Korra (Korra from now on), but that’s neither here nor there. I know that most of those issues stem from the troubled production of the series which, at the time, was seemingly being produced reluctantly by Nickelodeon. Still, there’s some solid character writing and further worldbuilding in Korra, so it’s still a contribution to the overall Avatar world.

Avatar: The RPGs

Being such a popular series, it’s unsurprising that there have been many adaptations of this fictional world to popular RPGs throughout the years, including one for D&D 4th Edition (¿?), and a very popular one created by Chilean designer Danilo Jara for the Fate system, among others.

What’s even more, there have been some previous adoptions of  this world in the system that Magpie specializes in—and the one they finally chose to work with: Powered by the Apocalypse or PbtA. (The purists out there will tell you that PbtA is a philosophy in TTRPG design and not a system per se—and they would technically be right—but, for all intents and purposes, all PbtA games play the same and feel the same).

Considering this, Avatar Legends—the name chosen by Magpie for their game (and Legends from now on)—was in a unique position. How to differentiate yourself from all these other “alternatives”, even the ones that are in your same playground, so to speak? If you add to that to the inherent difficulties of adapting not one but two series worth of content (plus a bunch of comic books and even a couple of novels) to a tabletop roleplaying game, the challenge was not an easy one, that’s for sure.

Avatar Legends: The Quickstart

A Quickstart is usually a sample of a larger system, often including some pregenerated characters, a pre-written adventure, and summarized version of the rules so you can get a “taste” of the new game. There have been some Quickstarts historically, however, who have gone beyond that, offering a mostly complete—if narrowed down—experience. From the top of my head I think about the Quickstarts White Wolf published for almost all of their games in the late ‘90s-early 2000’s, which had complete systems and powers. A more recent example of this is the Call of Cthulhu (7th Edition) Quickstart, which some veterans (myself included) consider a self-contained Cthulhu experience, even better in some ways that the completely fleshed-out system.

The Avatar Legends’ Quickstart falls into the latter category.

Although much of the context is missing (beyond the obligatory introductions and summaries), the system and character options in the Legends’ Quickstart feel complete and ready to be used not only for one-shots, but even complete campaigns. I dare to say this because the advancement system is already in place, with the available options for player characters ready to be used. We’ve been told that the complete book will include more of everything here—as it is to be expected—but, from my perspective, I wouldn’t wait for the final book to drop and would start a campaign immediately. The best thing is that the Quickstart (as most of its kind) it’s totally free!

Design Decisions

Coming back to the design decisions made by the people at Magpie, there’s one at the core of Legends that’s sure to be controversial. In short, there are no “bending rules” in the official TTRPG based on Avatar and Korra. Saying it like that, it sounds as if a core part of the Avatar world is missing, but despite what some may tell you, it isn’t so.

The thing is, as important as bending is to Avatar’s worldbuilding—being the ability to use or “bend” elements to someone’s will—it’s never explained in detail in any of the shows. Moreover, every time a bender and non-bender are in a conflict, there never seems to be much of a substantial difference between them, either in power level or the ability to influence their surroundings. This is even more pronounced in Korra, where technology has advanced enough to provide the non-bending characters with some impressive options.

When taking into consideration that there are no hard rules regarding bending—and the abovementioned even ground with technology—Magpie’s decision not to have hard rules for bending in Legends seems less of an oversight and more of wise design decision, one that opens the game to include non-benders in protagonic roles without feeling like they are the “lesser” option, so to speak.

Another perhaps less controversial but even more central design decision to Legends’ gameplay is that of origin availability for player characters (PCs). Most PbtA games present their players with limited options when it comes to PCs. Other PbtA, Avatar-inspired games do this—Legend of the Elements comes to mind—permitting, in essence, one PC from each Nation. Legends, instead, opts to have options that are more inspired by the dramatic archetypes of both Avatar and Korra than by their Nation origin. This allows for a group to have multiple characters from a single Nation—even all of them!—and allows for an even wider array of options without losing the core of what makes an adventure feel like its part of the Avatar world.

And speaking of that, another innovation (brought from another very popular PbtA published by Magpie, the superheroic Masks) is that characters in Legends have effectively no “hit points” to speak of. They have a Fatigue track, yes, but that functions more as a limit to what they can do than as a measure of toughness/resistance.

What characters do have in Legends are conditions (like Angry or Insecure). As you can see, this type of condition is not the type that you can cure with healing potions and, indeed, the options to recover from these conditions are all dramatically flavorful. For example: if you’re Angry, take -2 to comfort and support and assess a situation (two moves). To recover, you either need from someone else to comfort and support you or you might “break something important or put others in danger”. As you can see, this encourages players to both talk about themselves and process their feelings openly—as in Avatar and Korra—to get a mechanical benefit. As I’ve said many times before, I think there’s nothing better in TTRPGs than when mechanics and fiction go hand in hand together.

Playtesting Legends

Both times that I’ve playtested Legends so far (both with different groups of people and even eras of play) I had a really nice time. PbtAs are generally easy to grok, but this one may be the easiest one that I’ve learned so far. What’s more, the other players at both (virtual) tables seem as comfortable as I was.

The thing is, the tools available right now in the Quickstart are good enough that you can start a game with zero prep and, just by following the rules, you’ll get a a group of heroes in the Avatar world that has a major story arc to complete (similar to the one I praised from Avatar at the beginning, if you remember) as well as the seeds to create minor adventures tied to that larger arc. This is a commendable thing, and something that I haven’t seen as well and simply implemented in a TTRPG before.

The gameplay itself was also very satisfying, especially the second time around (with the Quickstart rules), as the story developed naturally from the decisions of the PCs. Even better, I was able to appreciate how important the inter-PCs mechanics are, as they are the healthiest (sic) way to get rid of conditions; i.e. to “heal” your character from the harm acquired along their adventuring.

I think my final impression of the game—at least from the Quickstart rules—is of a very successful adaptation of Avatar world, one that is both faithful beyond the surface and mechanically sound as a TTRPG.

My Life as a Professional Game Master

I have a special relationship with Avatar Legends, because it will be the first game that I run professionally. “Professionally” in this case means that I’ll get a monetary compensation for doing so—i.e., I’ll get paid—through Magpie Games Curated Content Program. I’m really happy with this new challenge and I hope that running games in this way helps me to get better at it (one can never have too much practice).

My current games are all sold out at the moment, but I assure you there’ll be more to come in the following weeks and months. If you’re interested, you can join Magpie Games’ Newsletter to get notified earlier or check my GM profile here.

Did you like what you just read? Awesome! Please help me by leaving a comment, sharing with a friend, or by joining my Patreon. I’m trying to support myself with my writing, and any help is appreciated.

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