Avatar Breakdown

2008 Aug 22

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for the “Book 4: Air” game Dev’s talking about organizing, inspired by my original Avatar rules, Mist-Robed Gate, and In a Wicked Age.

A large version of the elemental chakra from the old character sheet is placed in the center of the place space. All the major and minor characters in the game each have a figurine or pawn that is placed somewhere on this chakra, on one of the four elements. Characters that are not active in a particular episode are pushed off to the side, in a “holding area” next to the element they are currently on. Next to each element is also a bowl of tokens that share the traditional color of that element.

Aside from the chakra, the other main mechanic is based around “dharma paths” which are cards for spread out around the play space that come in three varieties:

  • greater dharma paths last through multiple episodes, maybe even an entire season or multiple seasons, and take the form of tasks such as “kill the Fire Lord” or “make my parents understand”;
  • lesser dharma paths span, at most, a single episode or multi-part episode, such as “learn more about the spirit world” or “there’s a drill coming to destroy the outer wall of Ba Sing Se”;
  • urgent dharma paths are resolved within a single scene, like fights, arguments, and other kinds of dramatic action sequences, like “prison break!”

Play consists of pursuing progress along dharma paths of various scope. Generally speaking, you advance along urgent dharma paths at the end of an action or series of actions, you advance along lesser dharma paths at the end of a scene or by resolving an urgent dharma path, and you advance along a greater dharma path at the end of an episode or by resolving a lesser dharma path.

You pursue paths by making choices based on where a given character’s figurine currently sits on the elemental chakra. So if I’m playing Zuko and his figurine is currently on Fire, I can choose between the Yin approach of “cunning” and the Yang approach of “recklessness.” If I’m pursuing a urgent dharma path, such as a fight with Azula, I might make a choice by saying, “Enraged at my sister’s actions, I leap at her and swing a whirling fiery kick at her head” and then move my token to Air, since I’ve chosen “recklessness.” Having made that choice, I throw a fire token on the urgent dharma path representing the fight, which could be called something as simple as “Azula Appears and Attempt to Defeat You.”

Once a path has reached a natural conclusion, the group either negotiates an appropriate result, “You manage to escape from Azula, but you know it’s only a matter of time before she finds you again,” or can choose to randomly draw one of the tokens placed on that dharma path. Before drawing, the group should collectively choose which character must ultimately make a choice as a result of this dharma path (whose dharma is this, really?). Once a token is drawn, that character’s figurine is moved to the same element as the token that is drawn and that character’s player narrates the character resolving the conflict by making a choice based on that element.

So, if we decided that the fight was ultimately about Zuko trying to work out his messed up relationship with his family and I draw a Fire token, I move Zuko’s figurine to that space and decide whether he resolves this fight through “cunning” or “recklessness.” Ultimately, I move his figurine to Earth and describe how he tricks Azula and discovers a way to escape, choosing “cunning.”

Afterwards, however, the Fire token that I would normally put on the associated path (for making the choice) doesn’t have a path to go on, since that path’s been resolved. Instead, I place the token on a path one level higher in scope, a lesser dharma path, to indicate progress on one of the major themes or issues of the current episode. Perhaps I place it on “You Win Some and You Lose Some,” indicating that Zuko has become even more angsty and jaded about his life.

When adding tokens and making progress on lesser or greater dharma paths, players should probably jot down a few notes on the card, indicating how progress was made. Since, unlike urgent dharma paths, lesser and greater paths are not resolved in a single scene — or even several scenes or multiple episodes, in some cases — and it can consequently be difficult to remember what the last bit of progress on a given path was. Generally speaking, each step along a path should build on previous steps, even if different characters are cooperating on or struggling over the same dharma path.

2 Responses to “Avatar Breakdown”

  1. […] Jen, Eben, Shreyas, Elizabeth, and Jonathan are playing the new version of the Avatar game set during the events of a hypothetical Book 4: […]

  2. Meserach Says:

    Hey Jonathan, I really like in this post one particular past of the mechanic, where you pass tokens from the urgent dharma paths to the lesser ones and so on up. That’s an awesome little structure. I like.

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