Avatar Legends Quickstart Review

Water… Earth… Fire… Air. Long ago, Avatar: The Last Airbender told the story of a nascent master of all four elements and the group of young heroes that helped him save the world. Then everything changed when the Legend of Korra brought us the tale of his successor and her many trials and tribulations. But then, as these things go, that journey ended and that world vanished from the screen. Seven years passed, with the story continuing in novels and comics, but now we’ve discovered a new window into the Avatar world. Magpie Games is telling the story this time, and the prologue is the Quickstart for their newest roleplaying game: Avatar Legends!

Avatar Legends is going to be a Powered by the Apocalypse game, so that tells you a few things right off the bat: character playbooks, rolling 2d6 plus a stat, degrees of success from misses to partials to full, narrative storytelling which triggers mechanical moves that then feed back into the narrative, and so on. The familiar bones are all there, it’s not really a huge leap of straight-from-PbtA innovation, but what’s interesting to me is that there is innovation related to Magpie’s own PbtA work. Powered by the Apocalypse, yes… but you might call it Powered by Masks: A New Generation as well.

Before we get to those crunchy bits, though, what do you actually do with this game?

Your Own Legend

The world of Avatar is a pretty busy one, with quite a few heroes on the job, so how exactly do you avoid getting sucked in by the gravity well of canon? Well, first, no, you can’t play as an actual Avatar – probably a good idea for mechanical balance, anyways. Second, Avatar Legends takes the tack of focusing gameplay slightly to the left or right of canon events in the timeline. 

There are five defined eras to choose from, and each very broadly defines what kind of problems your heroes are going to be dealing with. Kyoshi’s Era deals with rogues and bandits and corruption as nations dig in. Roku’s Era will see heroes struggling to maintain an uneasy peace as tensions rise between nations. The Hundred Year War Era is set during the time when Avatar Aang vanished from the world and the Fire Nation fought to conquer it, a prime playing field for those who would fight the unjust and the tyrannical in order to protect the weak. Aang’s Era takes place after the end of the first show and focuses more on healing and working toward a brighter future. Korra’s Era also takes place after its respective show, allowing play in a more modern era while the world deals with the repercussions of imperialism. 

Now, it’s a big world – it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility to be playing events running at the same time but parallel to those in canon. Still, there’s that gravity well of canon threatening to stifle your own story, so the default of being after or before canon events is the smart play.

Once you’ve picked an Era, then you choose your Scope, which could be as focused as a single temple of Fire Sages or span the entire world. Aang’s journey across the world is a good example of the latter, while Korra’s first adventures were somewhere in the middle dealing with Republic City. Scope can change, although that’s probably a new season, as it were. The Group Focus might also change, and is also definitely a sign of a changing season, as it’s the purpose that brings the characters together. Your group might choose to defeat a villain, to protect something, to change a society, or learn history, for a few examples. Finally, you detail in broad strokes the inciting incident which saw the characters meet one another and join forces.

It’s not quite as specific or personalized as How The Team Came Together in Masks, but it does a handy job of helping the group playing the game decide what kind of story they’re going to be telling, which is going to be helpful when it comes to making characters. Speaking of which, since this is a quickstart how you make characters and how they work is the primary mechanical focus, so let’s get to those crunchy bits!

The Heroes

First you choose your playbook, and there are six options available in the Quickstart: the Bold, the Guardian, the Hammer, the Idealist, and the Successor. You’ll note that there’s no Firebender playbook or anything of the like, and we’ll get into that a bit more later, but the important takeaway here is that the quickstart states that a playbook “defines what kind of social role they fill in the group, and how that role relates to the conflicts that drive them.” You will obviously get mechanical advantages with whichever playbook you choose, but those are almost secondary. You play the Hammer if you want to grapple with what force can and can’t solve, the Idealist to awaken hope in those around you, the Successor to struggle against your powerful but malevolent lineage, and so on.

Each character then chooses their Training. Each character specializes in either waterbending, earthbending, firebending, airbending, martial arts/weapons, or technology. There’s no niche protection here, and it’s not a hard requirement that everyone has a different training. Your chosen training really just informs how your actions and abilities manifest in the fiction – the same move is used to attack whether it’s a fire blast or a boomerang – and having different ones among the group might help them feel distinct. To further distinguish yourself you also choose a fighting style that makes you different from the others who share your training, like a waterbender who creates handheld weapons out of ice or a tech expert who excels at creating elaborate snares. 

Avatar Legends uses four stats. Creativity is the ability to think quickly and unconventionally, Focus measures the ability to perform difficult or precise tasks under pressure, Harmony represents social sensitivity and aptitude at taking the feelings and views of others into account, and Passion is the intensity of emotions and drive and turning that into decisive action. Each playbook has two +1s, a 0, and -1 assigned to the four stats, and then gets +1 added to the stat of the player’s choice. Then you choose some narrative stuff, like your background (military, monastic, outlaw, etc) and demeanor(s) and appearance, answer some playbook-specific questions about your history, and (after everyone is introduced) Connections between the characters. Then there are playbook-specific moves and combat techniques to pick from; we’ll get into these in a bit.

Masks players will immediately recognize Conditions, emotional states that are marked when things don’t go a character’s way or they take a hit. As with Masks, each inflicts a penalty on certain moves; a character who is Afraid will take -1 to intimidate and call someone out, while someone who feels Foolish will take -2 to trick and resist shifting your balance (we’ll talk more about these later). Again, certain actions can clear a condition; you clear Angry by breaking something important or putting others in danger, and Insecure by offering aid or support to someone competent. Finally, yes, mark all five Conditions and you’re taken out. This brings in both the idea that how a character reacts to a hit is more important than whether or not they actually take physical damage, and the balance of power between a character able to hurl boulders and cover themselves in metal and a wheelchair-bound mechanical genius. What’s different, though, is that there’s another layer.

Characters also have a five-point Fatigue track, a representation of physical and emotional exhaustion which can be thought of as ‘between’ what’s going on and the character’s Conditions – while there are and will be ways for Conditions to be marked independently (the basic attack ‘move’ does so), they also get marked after your Fatigue track gets filled.. If your Fatigue track is full and you have to choose between marking Fatigue or something else you have to pick something else, and if the only option is to mark Fatigue then you mark a Condition. Fatigue is also a resource, however, as many moves/techniques require you to mark it in order to activate them. Aside from resting, there are ways to recover Fatigue even in the middle of a fight: even if you have Conditions marked, you might recover Fatigue to empty out your track and thus ‘protect’ the rest of your Conditions. This would seem to lead to a fascinating push and pull, waterbending style, between being able to take a hit, being able to use abilities effectively, and recovering enough to be able to keep doing both.

Each playbook has two principles of Balance, each of which are important to your character while also being in conflict with the other. The Icon’s Balance is between the Role they have been trained for and the Freedom to make their own path, while the Guardian teeters between Self-Reliance as a protector and Trust in others to take care of themselves, for two examples. Balance is represented numerically for each principle, with the default ‘center’ that you will fall back to being at 0 for each – if your Balance is at its 0/0, then you care about each principle equally.

Balance can shift however, and the values change to reflect that: if the Bold’s Confidence is at +1, their Loyalty is at -1, and if the Successor’s Progress is at -2 then their Tradition is at +2. The reason for tracking these numbers is tied up in a series of Balance moves, with the most immediately impactful being Live Up To Your Principle: when you take action in accordance with the values of a principle you can mark 1-Fatigue to roll + that principle instead of a normal stat. Your Idealist’s -1 Focus making it difficult to rely on your skills and training? Doesn’t matter if your +3 principle of leaping into Action is driving you to get involved.

When you begin play your center and your Balance are at 0/0, but you can choose to shift your Balance one step towards a principle of your choice. You might further shift your Balance via moves, but others – PCs and NPCs – might end up shifting it as well. This is reminiscent of Influence from Masks, but rather than shifting your stats – and thus how you view yourself – shifting another character’s Balance is about changing what they view as important, and further interactions with Balance are about bringing that importance to the forefront. If an NPC wishes to shift your balance and you don’t want to, you can try to Resist Shifting Your Balance with a straight 2d6 roll, which might also see you clearing conditions, marking growth, shifting your balance the way you want, or learning what your opponent’s principle is (if they have one; it’s a single principle ranging from +0 to +3 for NPCs). 

You can Call Someone Out to make someone act in accordance with a principle by rolling + their value in it, although a poor roll may see you getting called out as well; Deny A Callout is the other side of the coin, although it’s important to note that since you’re rolling with the principle an NPC is calling out this is one of those moves where a hit is ‘bad’. Finally, if you are at +3 for a principle and have to shift towards it you Lose Your Balance as the principle blinds you: you either give up, lose control, or take an extreme action and book it. Afterwards with some time to recover you’re back in the game minus all Conditions and Fatigue, and your Balance is restored to the center… but the center is moved one step towards the principle you exceeded, permanently (or, at least, until your character goes haring the other way) altering their worldview. 

This isn’t just another interesting push and pull, it also really matches the source material – you might say that Avatar Aang the Icon was forced to go through Lost Your Balance before the start of the show via Freedom, leading to him fleeing from his Role and winding up stuck in an iceberg for 100 or so years. Throughout both shows as well as the side materials, we see characters struggling with what they should be caring about and what really matters to them. We also see their determination and beliefs carrying them through truly difficult times, so it’s good to see that in game it’s not just a useful roleplaying mechanic – seeing the badgermole-in-a-china-shop Hammer comfort someone because they forgo Force and just Care so much is going to be awesome.

Now, the Basic Moves are about what you might expect. You can Plead, Intimidate, Trick, Rely On Your Skills And Training, Push Your Luck, Assess A Situation, and Comfort or Support. There’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary here as far as Basic Moves for a Powered by the Apocalypse game go, but this is as good a time as any to fully address the air bison in the room – there is no difference mechanically from someone skilled with bending and someone who isn’t when it comes to using these moves, or most moves at all, frankly. You might be offering comfort or support by using firebending on a cold night to warm a friend, or you could just be giving them a pat on the back and agreeing that their recent struggles have been rough, buddy. There can be a narrative difference, as a waterbender without access to water obviously can’t waterbend (at least not traditionally), and a tech expert whose tools have been stolen is going to have to kitbash something. That means that there’s no restriction regarding the playbooks; the Bold could be an airbender as easily as a martial artist. Speaking of martial arts…

Mechanics Kai

Fighting… fighting is interesting. Another Masks parallel makes itself felt here – both games have superb (even if they’re not all superpowered) youngsters duking it out with the bad guys. Masks’ powers were very freeform, and to a point so was combat. Avatar Legends is a little more bound, both in that many bending abilities have been codified so you have an idea of what you can work with, and in the mechanics laying out a little more tightly what characters can do.

Combat is dealt with in exchanges, “sets of blows, blocks, and dodges that combine into a single fluid sequence.” Being cinematic is the goal – the example given involves leg sweps, blasts of fire, dodges, and a retaliatory gust of air all being in one exchange. An exchange could be a one-on-on duel or a free-for-all, but however it looks characters more or less know who they’re fighting with and against. Before you settle on the specifics of what you do in an exchange, though, you choose how you’re going to Approach the fight. Approaches act as a sort of umbrella move: you might be trying to Defend and Respond, Advance and Attack, or Evade and Observe.

At the start of an exchange the NPCs choose their approaches in secret, and then the player characters choose their approaches in public, getting a chance to discuss with one another. Then everyone reveals what approach they picked, and they’re resolved in the previously mentioned order: first Defend and Respond, next Advance and Attack, then Evade and Observe, which call for a roll with Focus, Passion, and Creativity or Harmony respectively. How you roll determines what exactly you can do, with techniques.

Everyone has access to Basic Techniques, and there are three for each of the approaches. Defend & Respond has Retaliate, Block, and Retreat. Advance & Attack has Strike, Seize a position, and Smash. Evade & Observe clears 1-fatigue and has Test Balance, Show Off, and Watch a foe. Characters will also have Special Techniques, each of which will still fall under the umbrella of an Approach and thus become an additional option to choose from – some from the playbook, others from different styles of bending, although the Quickstart sticks to the playbook ones.

Special Techniques have a sort of mini-progression to them – they start off Learned, become Practiced once you’ve actually used them successfully in a fight, and become mastered by the completion of a narrative quest set by the GM. The reason they have this ranking is because the roll for an approach lets you know how many techniques you can use – you can use a single basic or a single mastered technique on a 7-9, a learned or practiced technique on a 10+ (learned requires you mark 1-fatigue as well, practiced does not), and two basic or mastered techniques on a 10+.

Once all the approaches and techniques have been resolved, the exchange is over. You don’t need to immediately move to the next exchange, either. You can do some trash talking, for instance, and maybe even end up using non-combat moves like Trick or Plead or Call Someone Out against your opponents. We see that all the time in the source material! The point is that once someone tries to use force to stop someone from doing something else, then you jump into another exchange.

Growth and a Moment of Balance

Aside from traveling the world to learn and master new Special Techniques (which is where you’ll find things like metalbending by the way), characters advance traditionally by marking growth, which you can sometimes do via moves – the previously mentioned success when you Resist Shifting Your Balance is one option – but is mostly done at the end of a session. Every player ends a session by answering four questions, three of which are universal and one of which is specific to your playbook.

Did you learn something challenging/exciting/complicated about the world? Did you stop a dangerous threat or solve a community problem? Did you guide a companion towards balance or end the session at your center? If you are the Bold, did you express vulnerability by admitting you were wrong or that you should have listened to someone you ignored? If you’re the Guardian, did you pursue a desire or goal of your own, outside of protecting others? As with good PbtA moves, these questions tell you what matters to the game and your character, and drives the players to pursue them. For every question you answer yes to, you mark growth, and for every three growth marked you take an advance (that seems like a low amount, but it is a quickstart, so perhaps that will change). You’ll gain moves from your playbook and others, raise stats, shift your center, and unlock the final mechanical doodad I want to look at: your Moment of Balance.

Like with the Moment of Truth from Masks, the Moment of Balance is a powerful move that sees a character taking a stand and asserting control over a scene, both mechanically and narratively. Both need to be unlocked as an advancement, both resolve whatever the current situation is, both are single-use until they are unlocked again. The Icon will tell the GM how their new understanding of their burdens forges a new way forward for everyone. The Idealist tells how their compassionate actions end a conflict utterly and completely. Where the Moment of Balance stands apart mechanically, however, is that in order to use it your Balance has to be at its center, wherever that center may be. It is only through achieving Balance that you get to have your Moment of it, and considering how often opponents might be trying to shift your Balance, if anything this requirement makes this move even more dramatic and powerful.

Episode One

Now, it wouldn’t be a Quickstart if you weren’t able to quickly start, so it does come with some pre-generated characters and an adventure, The Forbidden Scroll. The adventure is pretty free-form, presenting the characters with an immediate problem – they are trying to escape the Fire Nation capital on the day of Fire Lord Ozai’s coronation with a scroll containing some snippet of history unaltered by Fire Nation propaganda and a Fire Sage who has realized the war is wrong – and detailing some opportunities they might take to overcome it, but not detailing any sort of order of events or dictating a specific way to resolve the adventure. It seems a decently solid first outing for a group of players, and also gives a good number of NPCs for a GM to look over and learn from. For the purposes of this review, I think it’s biggest value is as an example of what we first discussed, a story that’s canon-adjacent but still matters to all of the characters involved and the world at large.

Mechanically speaking, Avatar Legends is a great example of putting experience with a system to good use without staying too close to the source material. Magpie Games has taken the basics of Powered by the Apocalypse and their experiences with Masks and tailored the mechanics to emphasize what’s important to the characters alongside dynamic resource management and a combat system with solid guiding structure. Narratively speaking, it seems a so-far-so-good fit for the world of Aang and Korra, focusing not just on the adventures but on how the characters grow in their abilities, their understanding and knowledge, and their principles.

Now, this is still ‘just’ a QuickStart, we still have a lot to learn about this game once the full version is released. But I believe Avatar Legends is going to nail it.

You can sign up for Magpie’s email list and get a free copy of the Quickstart (at Version 1.1 as of this writing) here, and can follow the upcoming Kickstarter for the full game here; the project is scheduled to go live on 8/3/21.

Yip yip!

Want to take a closer look at who Avatar Legends characters can be? Check out this Meet the Party!

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