Avatar Is Finished But Ugly

2007 Apr 29

Judd “Mu” Karlman spent the last couple weeks watching all of Avatar: the Last Airbender and asked about my Avatar-based game. So I decided to spend part of today creating a summary of the basic rules, which have been 75% done for over a year, but never really written out.

The character sheet posted above is an ugly version I hacked together from older versions of the sheet. It exists solely for explanatory purposes and will soon be replaced by a pretty one, once I have time to fiddle with InDesign for several more hours.

Love the Show

The Avatar game is an engine for creating fanfic, basically. If you have not watched the show extensively or if you’re playing with some folks who aren’t fans of the show, it’s just not going to work as well. If you want to play this game with non-fans, make them watch a bunch if episodes and make sure that they really dig the show. If not, play with other people.

Imagining a Character

1. Forget About Roleplaying And Think In Terms of Avatar: Remember that Prince Zuko, Princess Azula, and Uncle Iroh are amazing characters. If you want to play someone like that, who is distant from or antagonistic to the other characters, awesome. Even if you don’t even up having many scenes with the other primary characters, it should still work just fine.

2. Basic Info: Discuss a basic character concept with the group. Which nation are you from? What kind of place and family? How old are you? Are you female or male?

3. Greater Dharma: What are one or two of the long-term goals of your character? Are you trying to save someone or destroy something or what? Having tangentially related Greater Dharmas among the characters is good, but avoid making them all related. Goals should pull people apart and put people in opposition as well as bringing people together.

Character Traits

1. Four Kinds of Traits: There are four kinds of traits, each one associated with a particular element, based on the four Chinese characters that are associated with the elements in the intro sequence of the series.

2. Virtue (善): Associated with Water, this box contains traits that describe your character’s personality, promises they’ve made, past misdeeds that they are atoning for, and how they view themselves and the world around them.

3. Strength (强): Associated with Earth, this box contains traits that are concerned with more practical things, the skills you have, your education, your weaknesses, your physical and mental abilities or failings, and material objects that you treasure and keep with you at all times (Kitara’s necklace, Sokka’s boomerang, Aang’s kite-stick).

4. Intensity (烈): Associated with Fire, this box contains traits that reflect your prowess with bending, martial arts, the spirit world, healing, or other supernatural or spiritual abilities.

5. Unity (和): Associated with Air, this box contains traits that represent important relationships with other people and beings, including (potentially) the other primary characters, allies (Apa, Suuki), enemies (Firelord Ozai), spirits (Heibai), pets (Momo), organizations (White Lotus), governments (Northern Water Tribe), previous incarntations (Avatar Ryoshi), and anything else.

6. Initial Traits: Before play begins, create a few traits. I suggest three to five. Write them in the appropriate boxes. I’ll post some example traits in a revision.

The Avatar Cycle

1. Get a pawn to represent your position in the Avatar Cycle, the chakra (which will eventually look more chakra-like) in the center of your character sheet.

2. Your pawns starts each session on the same element as the nation you are currently in, no matter where you are from or which nation holds your allegiance.

3. On your turn, frame a scene. The scene can include any primary characters, including your own, but doesn’t have to include any of them. Assign other players or yourself to play any secondary characters in the scene. You might want to keep some notes on the secondary characters, since they don’t have sheets of their own. I’ll probably have some guidelines for doing this eventually.

4. Any primary characters in the scene must be in the process of dealing with whatever Dharma Path is attached to the element they are currently on. If they are on an element for which they have ascribed no Path, they create one before the scene begins. Dharma Paths are described in detail below.

5. Play out the scene. Scenes should be unnaturally short by roleplaying terms. Five minutes or less. Imagine it as a single sequence of shots during an episode. During a scene, only one important thing should happen for each primary character in the scene, and sometimes less than that. If there are no primary characters, the scene should be about revealing information of some variety and, once that info is out, the scene ends.

6. Traits are not really invoked in play so much as used to structure the narration. If your character can bend plants or hates fish or has a pet platypus-bear, those can be easily narrated into the scene. If your character doesn’t have a platypus-bear, you’re less likely to have platypus-bears show up all the time.

7. Primary characters in the scene should choose to deal with their problems in a way that reflects the element they are currently on. Each element is a complex and diverse thing, however, so an element is not so much a limitation on player actions as a perspective through which to view them. Eventually, the players will decide how a character dealt with things, described at #10.

8. At the end of the scene, write down any critical info about secondary characters or any information that was revealed.

9. At the end of each scene, the player of any primary character in the scene should decide whether the scene represents a development along the Dharma Path tied to their current element (as described below, generally the answer is “yes”). If so, they write down a new step along that Path.

10. Also, each primary character in the scene is judged by all the players, who decide whether the character better embodied their current element in it’s Yin or Yang aspects. These aspects are as follows:

    Water: Determination (Yang), Adaptability (Yin)
    Earth: Endurance (Yang), Subterfuge (Yin)
    Fire: Aggression (Yang), Planning (Yin)
    Air: Recklessness (Yang), Wisdom (Yin)

If the group decides a primary character acted more in accord with their current element’s Yang aspect, their pawn moves Yangward around the Avatar Cycle. If a character acted in more of a Yin fashion, their pawn moves Yinward. The two halves of the taiji (yin-yang) symbols on the chakra point in the appropriate direction. For those who don’t know, Yang is white, Yin is black.

Dharma Paths

1. This is the core of the game.

2. Get a sheet of ruled paper on which to keep track of your Dharma Paths.

3. A Dharma Path comes in two type. One type is What You Want a Trait to Become. For example, if my character has the trait “Beginning Firebender” I might create a Dharma Path called “Become A Firebending Master.” The other type of Path involves Creating a New Trait and are much more common when you first start playing the game. When creating a Path for the second type, just name a trait that your character wants to gain, like “I Want to Learn to Love My Siblings.” In either case Dharma Paths represent the metaphorical paths my character wants to go down. Dharma Paths are named from the character’s perspective, usually, not the player’s. You can’t have a Path like “I Want to Discover That My Father’s a Murderer” unless your character has some reason to suspect the crime. You could have, however, something like “I Want to Figure Out Why My Father Can’t Sleep At Night.” Be creative.

4. Each Dharma Path is assigned to a particular element when it is created. You can have up to four Dharma Paths at any give time, one for each element on your Avatar Cycle chakra. Assigning a Dharma Path to an element means that the way you progress along that path will generally be in a fashion consistent with the elemental characteristics mentioned in #10 above. Mismatches are fine. If your character decides to use Fire (Aggression/Planning) to “Win the Heart of My Crush,” awesome.

5. Steps along the Dharma Path happen when you work on your Path in a scene, which will generally happen every time you have a scene in the element associated with that Path. Occasionally you may have a scene in which you don’t get around to addressing your Path. That’s cool. But any mention of your Path, however slight it may seem, may be considered a step. When you gain a step, write down a short line about how your Path was addressed in the scene on your sheet of ruled paper, right under the name of the Path. For example, if my character hits her crush with a snowball in my first Fire scene, I could write down “1. Hit Crush With Snowball” under “Win the Heart of My Crush.” Next time I have a Fire scene I might write down “2. Spied on Crush Checking Out Another Girl.”

6. You decide when your character has completed a Dharma Path. Completion means that they change or gain a trait, based on the experiences (steps) they’ve had while struggling along the Path. However, the trait they gain or the trait their existing trait turns into… it can’t be the trait they asked for. It has to be a somewhat different trait that reflects the unexpected things that happened along their journey. Sometimes a trait is completely different. A character starts out with the Path “Win the Heart of My Crush” and ends up with the trait “Brokenhearted” or, even more different, “Apprentice Shaman.” Traits are often in a different box than their Path originally indicated, as a proposed Intensity trait change becomes a new Unity trait.

7. Note that this also means that attempts to change a trait can end up creating new traits instead, leaving the existing trait unchanged. Or attempts to create new traits can end up changing existing traits. That’s fine. However, to make sure primary characters don’t become bloated with too many traits to easily keep track of, try to limit them to just the blanks on the character sheet. Change or replace less important traits if necessary.

Ending an Episode

I aim for an episode to happen in little more than an hour. Avatar episodes are 23 minutes, so an hour should be plenty. Eventually, I may come up with some additional guidelines for episode and season framing, but this is good for now.

That’s It

That’s the whole game. No dice. No resources. Nothing with any real mechanical weight. Just pure structured freeform. And, in my experience, it runs amazingly smoothly, though I haven’t playtested this incarnation of the rules yet. Hopefully I’ll do that at Camp this weekend, if nobody does it before then.

8 Responses to “Avatar Is Finished But Ugly”

  1. Judd Says:

    I had thought that part of chargen would include saying how an imbalance of the elements changed your character.

    I’m new to this freeform stuff. Allow me to sniff at it for a bit, like an animal who doesn’t trust a new smell and get back to you.

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by an imbalance, Judd. Explain?

  3. Shreyas Says:

    yes finally

  4. Brennan Taylor Says:

    Sweet, Jonathan. I want to give this a try. My whole family are big Avatar fans, so I may be able to give it a shot with four players.

    I’m interested in this kind of structured freeform that you’ve created.

  5. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Thanks, guys. But check out the comments here, some predictable skepticism about an Avatar game that lacks crunchy rules for bending and fighting.

  6. Mark Robertson Says:

    Major “thank you”s from me. I look forward to giving it a try myself.

    Truth is, if I wanted some comparative bending skills and abilities, there are plenty of other games that do it; I’m more interested in the way this focuses on character development as a process, rather than by cashing in XP or whatever else.

    Though I don’t know if I can go back to my own designs until I’ve played through a few episodes of this.

  7. John Harper Says:

    It’s nice to have this all written out. At first glance, I have to say I like it. I haven’t done freeform in ages, but this will give me a clear path to follow when I try again.


  8. annie Says:

    can you create a trait from a Dharma path without completing said path?

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