Welcome back again for another review / introduction to a game that I definitely wanted to love, but ultimately had a lot of problems with. This week is Avatar Legends by Magpie Games.
I was a Kickstarter backer for this game for the digital version of the game (really, I am completely out of bookshelf space otherwise I would have sprung for the physical edition) so I'm going to avoid talking about print quality or anything like that - as I've never actually touched any of the books. And my are there a lot of books. At the time of this writing, in addition to the core book there are ten supplemental books and a starter box. Add some special dice (which are admittedly really cool but are also $150) and you've got a giant money suck if you really want to get into the whole thing.
The digital content is available on Demiplane as well, which is handy for reference in addition to the PDF format, which I received as part of the Kickstarter campaign. You can purchase them independently from Demiplane, as a bundle from Magpie with the physical books, or you can purchase PDFs from Drivethrurpg. The purchase options are actually a little daunting.
Let's dig a bit into the system, and I'll talk about what I like about it and why ultimately I'm disappointed with how it turned out.
System and General Gameplay
At its heart, this is a Powered by the Apocalypse game - and is set up as such with all the basics you would expect. There are 17 playbooks across the core and supplements, and each playbook has moves and inter-character relationship abilities. All the usual suspect basic moves are there, as well as principles of play for both the GM and the players. Likewise, there's an advancement track called "Growth" which follows pretty familiar patterns of advancement.
This is where things start to spiral completely out of control. Each playbook has a "Balance" attribute to model internal conflict for the characters. To supplement that balance attribute, there are several balance moves - designed to trigger or influence a character's balance score. You can become "out of balance" and then a number of things occur. Some characters must play with this mechanic to advance the playbook, and it can have impacts on the flow of combat scenes.
In addition to balance, you have Conditions - which are relatively similar to other PbtA systems, Statuses (4 positive, 4 negative), and Fatigue. Each of these play a part in ongoing play and in combat.
But wait, there's more!
You have a Training, which is either your bending technique, combat expertise, or being really good at tinkering with things (like Asami, from Legend of Korra). From that fighting style you get Fighting Techniques! Each of those Techniques is either Learned, Practiced, or Mastered. The level of the technique indicates how easy it actually is for you to use in combat.
We're not done yet.
In combat, you must take an approach for each round of combat, and you roll a different attribute to determine how many moves you can acutually use. Each stance also determines when you go in the turn order. You may only use techniques that are tied to the approach, and as such there are two basic technique moves for each of those approaches even if you don't have a special move for that approach.
Still with me? We're almost there.
There are also Advanced Techniques that you can learn through growth, as well as Specialized Bending - like Bloodbending, which you can only do while empowered (which is one of those statuses, mentioned above).
Overall, I think this is one of the most complicated PbtA Derivatives I've come across. There are a lot of rules and a lot of different things to keep track of which slow down combat resolution. Numerically, I'm not sure if there are more systems in Avatar than there are in say, Blades in the Dark, but either way it feels much heavier than you'd find in a typical story game and the system really suffers for it.
I think you could strip out a lot of the mechanics around the combat system and still have a very fulfilling game that fits the spirit of Avatar, but without nearly as many little fiddly things to remember. It's the biggest miss of the game, I think.
Okay, so let's talk about the combat system - there's just a lot going on here for what is ostensibly a character-driven story game.
First, you enter "combat rounds" and in a deviation from many of the other PbtA derivatives, NPCs also have a place in the combat rounds. Likewise, they can take action on their turn, rather than being "reactive" to player actions. In a game like Dungeon World, a monster would use its move in response to a player's Hack and Slash move - in Avatar, the NPCs actually take move in a turn order, which was a bit jarring for me at first.
So here's roughly how it works: First, everyone who is involved in the combat declares which approach they're taking to the combat round. There are 3 options, and you will roll with a different attribute depending on the option you have chosen. Next, combat proceeds in order based on which approach each participant is taken - Defend and Maneuver goes before Advance and Attack, for example. Notably, each combat round takes place at the "same time", however, so if you're taken out in a phase before you actually act, you still get to act..
On your turn, you roll the "Stance Move" and the result of the move determines what you can do. On a hit, you can use a basic or mastered move. On a 10+ is the only time you can use a Learned or Practiced move (and it might cost you fatigue to do so). NPC get to use 1 or 2 techniques, typically, sometimes more based on their overall power level.
Once a round is resolved, anyone who was taken out is removed and you repeat the process, pick approaches, resolve them, and continue until combat is resolved by defeat, retreat, or everyone agreeing that combat rounds are no longer necessary.
Compared to more rules-heavy systems like Pathfinder, or the Hero System, Avatar's combat isn't that complicated. Compare it to other PbtA systems, however, and you've got one of the most complex ways to resolve a narrative fight in the category (that I've encountered anyway). The core book does say that you can resolve combats using the simplified resolution system, but a good portion of your playbook is dedicated to Techniques that can really only be used inside of combat (anything else would fall under the "rely on your skills and training" move).
All in all, I get what they're trying to go for here - they wanted mechanics to capture the spirit of "dynamic combat" that you find in Avatar or Wuxia stories - but it's... a lot. It's really a lot. I feel like you could still accomplish the goal without digging so heavily into a complex combat system.
So let's talk about that a little more.
Capturing the Spirit of Avatar
Physically, there's a lot to like about the layout of the book - I really like the typography, layout, chapter headings and interstitials, are all really good. Also, being a licensed work there's a ton of art directly from the series, as well as some original artworks that are thematically appropriate and aligned well to the sections in which they appear.
Several of the core systems, as with the combat system mentioned above, do try to capture the underlying themes of the source material - the Playbooks distill the archetypes that are present throughout Avatar and Korra. One in particular that I've played was the Elder, which is clearly modeled after Katara in her twilight years from Korra - and captures the essence of "character set in their ways is both teacher and student" through its advancement mechanics. It was also one of the more difficult characters to play, since advancement required on really getting the other players to buy into "listen to the elder's advice", and for a good portion of the beginning of the game, they wouldn't (because it was narratively and thematically appropriate for them to not).
Likewise, the Balance mechanic is designed to model the inner conflict that you see from most of the characters in the series as they struggle both with navigating growing up and global-scale geopolitics. However, in the case of Balance, I think that is too mechanically complex and unnecessary to capture that feeling. Apocalypse World, Monster Hearts, Thirsty Sword Lesbians and a number of other PbtA derivatives capture inner conflict (and interpersonal conflict) just as well with way fewer mechanical systems - I don't think you need a back-and-forth sliding scale and a whole slew of moves to support it.
Techniques, I feel are also way too complicated. I think they're trying to capture the essence of "gaining mastery in a technique through study or instruction", but they've managed to make the systems around it so complicated that it's extremely easy to miss some detail about what's happening. You could just model this with an advancement track, or tiered moves.
Overall, it feels like the designers had a whole lot of ideas about what makes Avatar, well, Avatar and they decided to make a mechanical system for each and every one of them on a story game scaffold, which is a shame - it was a bit hard for me to get past the fact that there are just a ton of mechanics to remember which get in the way of what they were trying to accomplish.
I went in to the Avatar Kickstarter with fairly high hopes, given I'm a big fan of PbtA derivatives in general. Before starting our first campaign in the system (GM'd by one of my good friends - who is an excellent storyteller as well), I was a bit nervous about just how many systems there were. And while we were able to have an enjoyable campaign, we frequently got bogged down in the beginning by all of the systems, and over the course of a few months of sessions there was at least one time each session where we had to re-reference the rules or realize that we'd done something "incorrectly". Frequently, those "incorrect" rulings didn't actually matter - but slowed down the narrative none-the-less.
I don't regret backing the system, though - the extra information in the supplements makes for a good read, at least, but I don't think I'll be super inclined to run the system as-is again - if I want to run or play in an Avatar themed game I'll likely do it in either a custom PbtA hack or in something like FATE Core.
But! If story games with heavy mechanics are your jam, or if you just want a book with great layout and artwork in the Avatar universe, head on over to Magpie Games (or Demiplane. Or Drivethrurpg.) to pick it up: