Traits Become Keys: Dharma Paths

2006 May 31

Jason Morningstar wanted to see a filled in sheet for the Avatar game, which I’ll try to get up soon. However, the sheet itself is not nearly as cool as the process you go through to fill it out. Sure, you add a few traits and fill in basic information in the beginning, but over half of the sheet should start out blank, to be filled in through play. Additionally, The process of play is the process of changing the information on your sheet, the process of becoming a different person. You do this by completing Dharma Paths.

You can have up to four active Dharma Paths at one time, linked to each of the four elements of the Avatar universe (water, earth, fire, air). Whenever you have an element open, either because you just completed a Dharma Path or because it’s early in the game and you haven’t filled your elements up yet, you can declare a new Dharma Path. Dharma Paths are filled out on little slips of paper that looks something like this:

To declare a Dharma Path, you pick a trait you already have or, if you still have any, a blank space on your character sheet. This is the trait you are hoping to change. Traits come in various type, including Bending/Martial Arts, Relationships, Possessions, and Personality Traits (I’m still kinda sorting those out), so you also write the trait type down. You also note the element you’re associating it with and, most important of all, declare what you’re intending it to become. So if you start with a trait like “Sokka is Dismissive of Girls” maybe you want to change it to “Sokka Has a Girlfriend.” Declaring your intentions helps structure play and gives the other players (including the GM) a sense of where you hope to go with the character.

To fill out the Dharma Path, you “collect” scenes which are relevant to pursuing your goal, writing down a short summary of what happened in each scene, so you have a record of Sokka progressing. But play may not lead you to your expected result. Sokka might get his ass handed to him by a group of warrior women and, instead of finding a girlfriend, develops a major unrequited crush on one of them. This would be recorded on your Dharma Path card as “Sokka gets beat up by girls” + “Sokka plans revenge on girls” + “Girls get the best of Sokka” + “Sokka asks to train with the girls” + “Sokka develops major crush on head girl” + “Girl goes off to fight” + “Sokka leaves,” based on how the scenes end up playing out.

So, at the end of this process, your declared trait changes, but not to the trait you were hoping for. Instead, you have to rename your trait (or add a new trait) based on what actually happened in play. So instead of changing “Sokka is dismissive of girls” to “Sokka has a girlfriend,” you end up with “Sokka is crushing on a warrior woman.” Yay, Sokka is no longer dismissive of girls, but not in the way you necessarily intended. Renaming the Dharma Path, changing your original intentions to match what actually happened, is what closes the path, allows you to change your trait, and lets you start a new Path if you want.

Dharma Paths are generally arbitrary in length, closing when players feel like they’ve reached a sort of cathartic point where they’re ready to assess how things have changed and how a character is different.

Details I’m still working out: Dharma Paths can change type too. There’s an episode where Aang tries to learn Firebending and instead learns the consequences of being an impatient brat. Or where Katara tries to fight sexism and instead learns Waterbending from a master.

Also, completing Bending/Martial Arts/Possession paths changes what your character is capable of doing in the game world. So I need to find some semi-equivilent importance for Personality Traits and Relationships. Shreyas and I were talking about having those be the traits the GM created conflicts and obstacles out of, pushing players to either 1) change the problem into something that’s not a problem, or 2) change themselves so that the problem is no longer a problem, or 3) a combination of both. We’ll see.

One Response to “Traits Become Keys: Dharma Paths”

  1. Kaare Berg Says:

    This rocks Jonathan. I can’t wait to see where you are taking this, and how the finished thing looks like when compared to my thing.

    What i am doing with your arc thing, shortly put each arc has a genre or setting spesific theme, a set of pressures that indicate what character resources that are Fair Game for the GM to use, and exits, leading to other links. Like sex exiting, to joy, betrayal or violence.

    Its a dark game, so happieness invariably leads to badness.


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