Magpie Games currently holds the record for the most funded tabletop RPG Kickstarter with Avatar Legends, its game set in the universe of Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The Kickstarter campaign earned nearly $10 million from over 80,000 backers, a truly staggering total that, when considering campaigns for specific RPG titles, has yet to be beat. Surely the completion of this game would be met with renewed interest and immense sales success, so we’ve been looking forward to the release- wait. I’m being told that the game was released before Halloween. Huh. Well, one would naturally assume that the release would see a second wind of- so apparently the PDF version on DriveThruRPG hasn’t sold more than 500 copies since coming out. Odd. Now, to be fair, the physical game isn’t yet available, and PDF fulfillments from those preorders don’t count among the numbers I’ve cited. Even so, the campaign sold nearly 8700 PDF-only rewards, so getting not quite to 5% of that number upon release is…worrying.
As many pointed out and grumbled about during the campaign, Avatar Legends is the largest licensed RPG Kickstarter as well as the largest RPG Kickstarter in general, and as such the buyers’ motivations are often a little different. Consider: around 2,800 people paid $50 for the pledge tier which got them a physical core book and PDF copies of everything else. However, over 39,000 people opted for the $75 tier which added all the physical stretch goals. Those physical stretch goals were one more book, dice, a cloth map, a card deck, a pack of journals, and a tile. Combine that with the tier level that gave the physical stretch goals in addition to a copy of the special edition core book, and the vast majority of backers paid for the doodads. And everything I have to say in this review will not take away from those doodads, I’m pretty sure.
Before you grab your pitchforks, Avatar Legends isn’t a bad game. Seamus wrote a review of the quickstart back when the game was funding, and overall everything he discussed about the mechanics carries through. Magpie rose to the top of the Powered by the Apocalypse heap for a reason, and Avatar shows a lot of the design chops that they demonstrated with Masks, a game which I unironically think is one of the best PbtA games in the library. That said, while overall better executed, Avatar shows some of the same rush job frayed edges that Root does, including some ‘callbacks’ to Masks which are more like copy-paste jobs. Beyond that, Avatar is yet another game built around trying to make PbtA appeal to trad players and doing so by bolting on trad mechanics. It’s even got a throwback big-book layout with lots (and I mean lots) of two-column text across 300 pages. While Avatar does show the polish that the suits at Paramount Global were expecting and paying for, it begs several questions about what the game’s going to do in the ecosystem now that it’s out, and exactly why it was a runaway Kickstarter success in the first place.
Magpie has Gone Trad
When I first looked through the Avatar Legends rulebook, I couldn’t help but think that I was looking at the next big thing from AEG or Atlas back in 1998. This is a 300 page hardcover rulebook, two-column layout, and it leads with literally 100 pages of lore. First complaint, albeit a small one: Lore goes at the back. Reviewing my collection of big hardcover books, the best organized ones always had the setting and lore information at the back. Now, this isn’t the worst way to do it (Eclipse Phase puts it in the middle) but it commits the exact same sin Root does by putting all the onboarding material for new players 100 pages into the book. As this is a mass market product, that’s a problem, because onboarding is going to be the single biggest part of getting anyone to actually play this. The lore itself is fine, but it is straight out of the 90s in terms of having no system hooks inline with the text. Yes, each era summary has a few GM moves (with no expanding detail, but I digress), but compared to something like Heart: the City Beneath, where all of the setting material is GM-facing (and still written to the same level of detail as that in Avatar), it does read more like a book from 20 years ago, like Legend of the Five Rings or the first edition of Eclipse Phase. I do give the game credit for being expansive in its setting coverage, using a long timeline which covers pretty much the whole of the Avatar canon. Being broad does mean not going particularly deep, but the material still gives more than enough to build a campaign with.
The rules of Avatar Legends are a reworked version of the mechanics from Masks, with some bulk added mostly around combat. With one exception I like the combat expansions; Techniques provide a good umbrella under which to organize a lot of distinct options. The six types of Techniques are interesting: four kinds of bending and then weapons and technology. From what I know of the setting this makes sense, but given the mechanical aim to put everyone on an even playing field it certainly works in mechanical terms. The game has a bit of an ‘initiative’ system where characters act in an order depending on what sort of Technique they’re using. The game also adds a fatigue track, which is clearly working to add in more resource management to the combat system than existed before. Where the ‘adding more’ trend falls apart is with statuses. Status effects are a well-worn mechanical option in many, many games, but where they don’t work is sitting right next to Conditions. Conditions in Avatar work the same way they do in Masks, representing negative emotional states as well as serving as a ‘hit point’ track. While it’s fine and good to import Conditions as-written, next to Statuses you start to confuse things. First, you’re tracking three different combat elements, which is a lot of overhead for a game (two seems to be a natural limit for median players, which explains why people often have trouble running classes with spell slots in D&D). Second, statuses and conditions are the same thing. Not in the game, mind you, in English. As Conditions were just copy-pasted from Masks (they changed out ‘Hopeless’ for ‘Troubled’), I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there was a lost opportunity to streamline things here. If I were to do it, I’d streamline things toward the Statuses…reading through the Techniques, most of the combat granularity comes from giving negative Statuses and taking positive Statuses. It’s not a bad mechanic at all, building out a martial arts system that’s heavily dependent on positioning. It just doesn’t click.
‘Doesn’t click’ is a consistent trend in the mechanics. Consider Balance. Instead of the system in Masks where each attribute was on a sliding scale, each Playbook in Avatar Legends gets a sliding scale with two principles on either end. If one is a -1, the other is a +1, and so on. There are Balance Moves, which are mostly expanded versions of the Influence moves from Masks. The notional idea is great; instead of worrying who has influence over you, you worry about which Principle those around you care about you embodying. The issue is that the entire mechanic kind of floats there. ‘Live Up To Your Principle’ gives you an opportunity to use the Principle’s value instead of a stat, but because the Principles are mirrored this is just a minor mechanical benefit for hanging out at the extreme ends of your track. Each playbook does have a section of unique rules which hang on their principles, but they’re quite unbalanced. Three out of the ten playbooks gain a Move which uses one of their Principles, while another one or two gain a benefit which they only get when a Principle is past a certain threshold. The rest of the Playbooks may get mechanics which move their Principles around more, but no direct utility other than the Balance Moves. The real issue here is that I’ve played a lot of Masks, and Influence is a mechanic which is all too easy to forget about. In both campaigns I’ve played, every PC ends up having Influence over every PC because we never find a good place to spend it. The only time it comes up is when the GM wants it to come up, and even that only happens every few sessions. Balance makes the Influence mechanic more complex, but doesn’t address the root issue of Influence, which is lack of incentives.
One of the biggest improvements in Avatar over Root is I don’t find myself asking ‘why’. Root was a go at the fantasy genre which didn’t really seem to need its source material, and that made some of the rules choices all the more perplexing. Avatar doesn’t have that issue, at least not to the same extent. I understand completely what these rules are trying to get at, and I think the systems are pretty neat, honestly. The choice to move away from having every stat move was a good one; the choice to bulk up combat with martial arts-style techniques was a good one. The question I have here is why so much of Masks was left in. The new rules are let down mostly because they weren’t embedded enough in the ‘core mechanics’ (Stats, Basic Moves, Conditions). Ultimately I think the additions were good, but the team needed to do a bit more taking away. Basic Moves and Conditions are both copy-paste from earlier games, and their integration into the new, more developed mechanics would have solved basically all of the issues.
Mechanically, Avatar is decent. Reading the game did not leave me frustrated and confused the same way Root did; I actually could see what’s being done with the mechanics and why. To be honest, I think it would be a really cool hack to port the Techniques rules back to Masks, giving each ability/power set a few unique Techniques…it’s a great expansion of powers which I think a lot of people want in superhero games. That all said, my issue with all the new mechanics is that they’re floating alongside the old mechanics, and generally making the game more complicated (both to play and to GM) than it really needs to be.
Complexity isn’t the worst sin of role-playing games, and Avatar doesn’t exactly get to crunchy just because it has a few parallel mechanics. From a reviewer’s eyes, though, it’s hard not to compare Avatar to something like Under Hollow Hills where, even though there wasn’t a lot of new mechanics, there was nothing left in from the old game either. Even Magpie’s earlier PbtA games, like Urban Shadows and Bluebeard’s Bride, show that their design team is quite comfortable with PbtA first principles and could have rewritten the moveset and Conditions mechanics if they wanted to and/or had time. Of course, this is a licensed game, made on someone else’s timetable and with someone else’s IP. And game mechanics don’t write checks.
The Fanbase Question
The Avatar Legends Kickstarter campaign made approximately $2 million on collectibles. That’s a little tough to parse thanks to the adventure guide, but since every tier got that adventure guide at least in PDF, it’s still fair to approximate using the incremental revenue from all the physical stretch goal and special edition tiers. Let me rephrase that: Over 20% of the revenue from the Kickstarter campaign came from people paying between 50 and 150% more to get the (as I called them in the intro) doodads. Now, if you cut out that revenue Avatar Legends is still the biggest RPG Kickstarter of all time, but Avatar Legends: Just the Doodads would clock in at number 7 itself.
This is why I tried my hardest to cut off the mechanical review of this game: I don’t think anyone really cares. On the most cynical level I’m not sure the designers care, otherwise how could you explain how much copy-paste there was from an earlier game? More defensibly, I know the licensor doesn’t care: the standards for licensed games are low and as a result I’d say Avatar is easily in the top third of licensed games released this decade, even considering all my complaints. The problem, though, and what I aim to demonstrate with the doodad economics, is that the buyers don’t care.
It’s a good time to be cynical about brands in RPGs, what with Hasbro calling D&D ‘under-monetized’ in order to rationalize the micro-transaction death by a thousand cuts that they’re proposing for the game’s next edition. That said, if you do a little reading it’s pretty obvious what ViacomCBS/Paramount was trying to do by giving the Avatar license to Magpie, and also how cheap that move was. In 2018, Netflix announced that they were developing a live-action remake of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Said development was rocky. While the two creators of the original series, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, were slated to be showrunners, they left the project by 2020, citing creative differences. This did not stop the show’s production; Netflix found a new showrunner and pressed forward. Shooting concluded last summer, but there is no release date yet. During this time period (early 2021 to be specific), ViacomCBS announced that Nickelodeon would have a new division, Avatar Studios, specifically for developing Avatar content. ViacomCBS rebranded to Paramount Global in February of 2022, and in June Paramount announced there would be three new animated Avatar movies.
The August 2021 campaign date for the Avatar Legends Kickstarter coincides with Paramount’s broader strategy for the brand, including millions upon millions of dollars of high-risk investment in TV shows and movies. The live-action TV show is cited as costing $15 million per episode, making the cost of the RPG license a drop in the bucket in comparison. The fact that Avatar Legends made so many headlines due to its success was even better for Paramount, but it’s still worth noting that the entire campaign netted less money than a single episode of TV cost. I have no doubt that ample money was spent marketing the Kickstarter campaign, and that has made the almost invisible release of the game in October baffling to some. To me, though, I think it makes perfect sense.
If you go on Magpie’s website, none of the physical books are currently available. There are plenty of reasons for this, most probably supply chain issues and in no way the designer’s fault. However, I think that the lack of marketing is probably because the licensor wants to treat the release date of the physical product as the release date of importance. It’s once again about the doodads. Collectibles drive mindshare, collectibles drive visibility on store shelves. None of the other capital-B Brands care about PDF sales; D&D basically doesn’t have them except for a kind-of substitute in their own walled garden. Therefore, as far as Paramount is concerned, the game isn’t out yet. The game to them is what gets put on store shelves and helps them cross-market to Netflix and Paramount+.
I am not against marketing, I’m not against licensed games. I enjoyed the hell out of the FFG Star Wars games, and I credit them for giving us Genesys. The One Ring is legitimately good, and Star Trek Adventures gave me one of my best campaigns and characters in recent memory. My problems with licensed games are when they’re so easy to peel back and see the monetary objectives behind the game design. Magpie is now at two strikes for designing game mechanics to lower a license into, as opposed to something like The One Ring which is built from the ground up to be Tolkien and could never be anything else. Other than the Bending, which shows up in one easily renamed set of mechanics pertaining to combat, nothing about the rules of this game are unique to Avatar. It’s not as galling as it was in Root, mind you, but it still isn’t possible to ignore either.
I do understand why Masks is a logical choice to base an Avatar RPG on, given the age of the characters and a lot of the themes. It was a great place to start, emphasis on the last two words. For this to really be a breakout game though (and it could have been the breakout PbtA martial arts game if it was a bit better executed), much more integration and (for lack of a better term) design needed to be done to get everything working together. The game is fine, it probably plays a lot nicer than D&D to be honest. But there is no mechanical innovation here, nothing particularly elegant or thought-provoking like Conditions or the shifting Attributes were when Masks first came out.
My guess is, though, that Paramount is happy. Their brand got a lot of attention, and the game is good enough that when it showed up in Actual Plays it wasn’t cringe-inducing. People gave them money, and their brand will be on shelves soon. What more could you ask for? Well, I’m an RPG critic, not a marketing manager. I have a few answers to that question.
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