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Avatar Legends RPG does justice to The Last Airbender and Korra’s storytelling, but fumbles combat - preview

Golden Appa-tunity.

Image credit: Magpie/Paramount

Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra demanded the imagination of their audiences, from the elemental bending and its evocative physical portrayal to the cultures and societies of the four governing nations. It was then no surprise that Magpie Games’ official tabletop RPG, Avatar Legends, met with immediate excitement when it launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month.

Anticipation can be a double-edged sword. Fans of the animated series, whose tabletop roleplaying experience likely begins and ends with Dungeons & Dragons, may balk at the looser, fiction-forward nature of Avatar Legends’ Powered by the Apocalypse-inspired ruleset. Seasoned dice-rollers, on the other hand, know Magpie’s bag of tricks from previous releases, such as Root: The RPG and Masks: A New Generation. They will be harder to impress - officially licensed games tend to carry the stigma of being bland, mass-appeal cash-ins, or else seizing on trends that were popular in the hobby at least five years ago.

After spending some time reading - and playing - Avatar Legends’ freely available quickstart rules, it seems as though the team at Magpie are well on their way to creating an experience that could please both camps. Avatar Legends: The RPG is very much a beginner-friendly title that leverages the strength of the source material in ways that will delight older hands.

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One of the standout features of the digital preview is its understanding of Avatar and Korra’s storytelling structure. Groups are explicitly encouraged to consider each session and its larger campaign as if they are episodes comprising a season of the animated show. This provides new roleplayers a familiar framework in which to imagine play - the drama and adventure of a 22-minute episode can be easily spread into a two or three-hour session at the table.

Groups will first have to decide which era of the Avatar universe they want to experience, each facilitating different kinds of stories. Both series tended towards the dramatic and the whimsical at different points, and a system that only allowed grim, wartorn sagas would do players a disservice. The delineation is a smart move - the same rules, moves and mechanics can spin a mythic yarn in Kyoshi’s era of heroic legends or a more intimate tale within the metropolitan blocks of Korra’s Republic City.

Player characters will be constantly pulled between two opposed principles that drive their heroic actions.

The designers further recommend choosing a group focus that will guide each arc of a shared story, whether that be as straightforward as defeating the Fire Nation general laying siege to the Water Tribe village, or the more complicated task of searching a vast desert for a reclusive master sand bender who might quell a storm. In either case, when the goal is completed or significantly changes, parties should reconsider the status quo of their world and set the stakes for a new adventure. Like arcs within a television season, allowing tension to peak and then reach a denouement provides players a chance to reflect on their characters’ growth.

Those characters will, by design, grow in much the same way viewers saw Aang and Team Avatar, or Korra and her group of friends, evolve as they encountered new viewpoints and ideologies. Characters will accrue experience, called “marking growth” in Avatar Legends, that is spent to increase stats or acquire advanced moves. But it’s the new Balance track that elevates characters from a basic fantasy outline to a member of the Avatar world.

Image credit: Magpie Games / ViacomCBS

Depending on the chosen playbook, which can be broadly understood as Powered by the Apocalypse’s equivalent to D&D classes, player characters will be constantly pulled between two principles that drive their heroic actions. One might struggle to trust their new friends because of a hard life of self-reliance. Another might fail to understand the difference between using their strength to protect and using it as a tool of justice, to tragic effect. The game mechanises this internal struggle as a demarcated bar where one cannot grow without the other diminishing.

Interestingly, this struggle is not moralised - neither side is inherently good or evil - but the slide away from balance affects a character’s abilities along with how that player should roleplay them at the table. The protagonists of Avatar and Korra often found themselves affected by the words and actions of others, which pushed them to the limits of their own beliefs and sometimes left them indelibly changed. A character’s balance can be similarly reoriented permanently, using rules to express a fundamental alteration of their ideals.

Using bending only as a means of reducing an enemy’s hit points to zero belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material.

Balance is also a resource that both players and the GM can use during combat or narrative play. The villain of the episode might shake a character’s resolve with a cutting remark, only for that same character to later live up to their principle when they choose to rescue a villager instead of seizing the opportunity to capture their adversary. Both of these actions shift balance, either awaking or resolving some inner conflict.

Combat is saved for direct, physical confrontation and uses one of the weakest and least-defined systems in Avatar Legends. Magpie Games admits it is still developing these rules, which currently comprise a back-and-forth series of choosing positioning, revealing intentions and resolving how each blow lands, cumulatively called an “exchange”. Narrative moves can be used between exchanges as each side resituates and prepares for another flurry of blows.

Image credit: Magpie Games / ViacomCBS

While the the option to sit back and assess a foe for weakness or spend a turn openly mocking them does a fair job evoking the series’ penchant for cutting much of its violence with humour or thematic lessons, it feels awkwardly wedged into a game that otherwise lets shared fiction carry the load. Bringing a session’s inertia to a standstill in order to trade barbs or fists is a bummer, and it’s furthermore telling that combat is the crunchiest part of the whole quickstart.

The drama and adventure of a 22-minute episode can be easily spread into a two or three-hour session at the table.

Many players and fans have expressed a wish for elemental bending to play a larger role in combat, but that solution would only introduce a larger problem. I love how bending is suffused throughout Avatar Legends’ rules - if a character can bend one of the four elements, that ability becomes a core expression of themselves, both in and outside of combat. An earth bender might raise a shelf of stone to knock a line of bandits prone or use the same action to create a bench where they might comfort a friend in the throes of grief. Using bending only as a means of reducing an enemy’s hit points to zero belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material.

Overall, the quickstart is a promising peek into a system that understands what parts of Avatar and Korra translate well to the table - friendship, personal growth and understanding a world via its dominant systems of power. Fans of the show who might take advantage of a familiar universe to try tabletop roleplaying for the first time will be rewarded early and often enough to keep them engaged, while veterans like myself can indulge in the unique twists on a familiar system that catalyzes exciting interpersonal moments. If Avatar Legends: The RPG can stick the landing on its shaky combat, this will be a title worth its spot on any shelf.

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