Archive for the 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Category

Ghost Opera Layout Sketch

2010 Apr 28

Apparently John tricked me into combining Nine Suns Must Fall with Ghost Opera and the Avatar game and some things I learned from Apocalypse World, all to make a quickstart dungeony game for kids and people who like stuff aimed at kids, illustrated with actual artwork from the Shang Dynasty.

Awesome. Can’t wait to playtest this. Which means I need to write it down.

Outraged Deed of the Day

2008 Dec 18

Since some folks were already writing letters…

As a researcher focused on cultural interactions between Asia and the West, I am writing in regards to the casting of the upcoming film, The Last Airbender. Aside from my day job, I am also a fan of the Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, on which this film is based, though it is certainly not targeted at people in my age bracket.

I have been following the casting of the film version of Avatar with a mixture of trepidation, dread, disgust, and outright horror. The overall approach to casting this film and the preliminary decisions made by the responsible parties indicate their intention to “whitewash” the ethnicity of the core cast of characters or, worse, encourage the young actors portraying these characters to don the Asian equivalent of blackface, whether through makeup or simply through their portrayal.

Avatar featured Asian and Inuit characters in a fantasy setting inspired and informed by a variety of Asian and Inuit cultures, though the series creators and some of the main voice actors are themselves white. Generally speaking, the cast and setting were a refreshing departure from both whitebread American media and the stereotypes that often surround non-white characters. Additionally, I was personally struck by the maturity and deftness with which the series handled issues of culture and heritage, making the strong departure the movie seems to be taking especially distressing.

I am immensely disappointed to read that the four actors selected to play the lead roles are all white. While the casting is not final, the statement has already been made: this film will take a culturally Asian and Inuit world and populate it with white actors. I would urge M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount Pictures to reconsider their casting choices.

Surely there is not such a dearth of suitable Asian or Inuit actors in the world that white actors, who have a much wider selection of roles open to them (including, it seems, many roles outside their own ethnicity), need be substituted. The studio may somehow think it is justifiable to “take roles away” from minority actors in order to present audiences with faces that look just like their own, but audiences know when they are being pandered to, especially an audience as sophisticated as the one that has been watching Avatar.

If Paramount Pictures continues to go forward with this cast, I will not be supporting this film with my money, and I will encourage my friends and family to do the same. I have no regrets in this regard because, if those involved with this film continue to demonstrate a similar lack of disregard for and ignorance about the elements that led to the TV series’ success, I am sure that the movie will not be worth watching.

[Dream Episode] Avatar: Book III, The Forge

2008 Oct 22

Here’s the lost Avatar episode from Book III that I dreamed about last night.

The crew of heroes (Aang, Kitara, Sokka, Toph, and Appa, with Suki still missing) arrive on an island where all the Fire Nation folks aren’t evil. In fact, they’re downright friendly, aside from their very old evil overseer. This island hosts the forge where they make metals and turn them into the technology and weapons that are used both in the war and for peaceful purposes. However, the forge once burned down, long ago, killing all the original workers. Their children and grandchildren, who bravely carried on the tradition of metalworking, clearly understand and respect the dangers of fire.

The forge itself, as the crew learns during their tour as visiting “guests from the main islands,” sits on top of a dormant volcano. The workers use firebending to draw magma up from the earth, seperate out the metals they want, and then shape it into what they need. There’s also a large pond in the volcano crater for them to place hot metal objects in, so they can cool. The workers only call up small amounts of magma at a time, because using a lot of firebending all at once runs the risk of awakening the dormant volcano, but their slow and methodical work style is despised by the Fire Nation generals who visit, demanding that more warmachines be made quickly. The forge workers ask Aang and the other guests to let people on the main islands know that metalworking is an art that takes time, so patience is needed.

Also, importantly, there’s a cute local girl working in the forge who hits on Sokka, but he’s trying hard not to be infatuated because he’s still worried about Suki. Also important is the local dress. Men wear a kind of poncho while women wrap themselves in a long flowing piece of cloth, somewhat like an Indian sari.

However, the evil, ancient overseer somehow discovers that the Avatar is visiting the forge and decides to reignite the dormant volcano and burn down the entire community… just as he did in the past when the workers revolted and refused to make materials for the war. So he uses his master-level firebending powers to call up a whole bunch of magma all at once. Things go crazy and the kids initially climb on Appa and start flying around trying to fix things, but even they can’t stop a volcano from erupting. They’re safe on Appa but they quickly weigh their options: flying away (“There’s no way we can save all these people!”) or dying here with them (“Our mission is too important to throw your life away! You have to save the world!”) before Sokka comes up with a crazy plan, like he always does.

Wading out into the pond, he tells all the people to take off their clothes. They at first look at him like he’s crazy. They are about to burn to death and he’s telling them to get naked? Desperate, Sokka demonstrates. He takes off the poncho they’ve given him, stands in the middle of the pond in his underwear, and holds one end of the poncho over his head, saying, “…then you find a partner to hold the other side, and when the pond boils and becomes steam, the hot air will lift you both up in the air, so you can float to safety, just like a Fire Nation airship.” The people still think he’s nuts until the cute local girl wades into the pond and takes off her sari. The camera only shows her blushing from the neck up, while Sokka’s eyes almost fall out of their sockets. She hands Sokka the other end of her garment and grabs onto one side of his poncho. Now the rest of the people quickly scramble into the pond and start ripping off their clothes.

The kids make Aang stay on Appa, to help airbend the floating people through the air, away from the volcano, and also to make sure that “In case this doesn’t work…” Aang will be okay and can still try to kill the Firelord on the Day of Black Sun. Aang doesn’t even want to think about that possibility. “It’ll work,” he says.

(I’m not sure how Sokka planned to keep people’s legs from being boiled in the pond before it turns to steam and carries them away, or how the steam wouldn’t just burn folks to a crisp, but, this was a dream, so it wasn’t worried about those things.)

So, in the end, the concrete parts of the dream, before it started wandering in strange directions, ended with a crowd of mostly naked people being shot into the air, held aloft in pairs by their clothes. Yay, Avatar fan service! I can only assume that, after they land, people will put their clothes back on and go take down the evil overseer.

The Dharmachakra

2008 Aug 26

Book 4: Air Example, Series Discussion

2008 Aug 26

The first part of a long, hypothetical example of play. Yes, we may eventually get together and play this out, but I expect it will work out quite differently than this example.

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

Eben decides to play Toph, since she — unlike Aang and Zuko — doesn’t have huge responsibilities at the end of Book 3 that would prevent her from adventuring.

Jen decides to play Sokka, because he’s hilarious and is the kind of person Aang is likely to trust with the mission to discover what happened to any surviving Air Nomads and sky bison.

Elizabeth considers playing Suki, because she’s a great foil for Sokka, but ultimately decides that the two characters are ultimately more interesting when they’re not together, because they’re more badass and less clingy. She decides to play Suki whenever she shows up, but that Suki won’t be a major character featured in most of the episodes.

Shreyas decides to play Azula, who is sure to escape from prison and cause all sorts of problems. She might even know what happened to Ursa, her mother, and therefore be a great foil for anyone attempting to discover her whereabouts. But Shreyas also wants it to be possible that Azula might eventually be redeemed like Zuko was in Book 3, that she won’t eventually end up desperate and alone.

Dev, Elizabeth, and Jonathan ultimately decide to not chose major characters at the beginning, but perhaps decide on them as play progresses. After all, when Toph first appears in “The Blind Bandit,” it’s not immediately clear that she’s going to join the team. The three main kids — Aang, Katara, and Sokka — have met plenty of other kids along the way (including Zuko) and have never added a fourth to their family. So new characters will be encountered in every episode and, if they seem like the kind that would join up with the main characters, then Dev, Elizabeth, or Jonathan might step in and decide to play one in an on-going fashion.

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.

Book 4: Air

2008 Aug 21

Dev and I have been talking about playing some Avatar, maybe something like this:


Aang is busy being the Avatar, while Zuko is busy being Fire Lord, but they each have a mystery that needs solving. Aang wants to know if any Air Nomads or sky bison survived the Fire Nation’s genocidal attack and, if so, where they might be. Perhaps they hid among the other three nations, hiding their identities, intermarrying, having children, but secretly preserving some relics of their heritage. After 100 years, it may be difficult to discover the truth but, if balance is to be preserved in the world, there must be Four Nations, not three. (Yes, a bunch of awkward questions about intercultural identity, the “rightness” of resurrecting a lost culture, and what it means to be an Air Nomad these days if you can’t airbend!) Zuko, on the other hand, is more interested in discovering what happened to Ursa, his mother and the former queen of the Fire Nation, which of course is related to the surviving Air Nomads / sky bison.

Since they and their close allies (the main characters from the first three seasons) cannot undertake these missions themselves, they have entrusted them to some other kids — the player characters — who can include both minor characters from the series (Haru!) and some the players make up.

We talked a bit today about hacking my original rules together with Shreyas’ Mist-Robed Gate to make a set of guidelines that we’re happy with. I’ll try to post about those sometime soon.

Updated Priorities

2008 Aug 21

Now that Geiger Beta is out, it’s time to take a break from that and give people some time to play it and make comments. Which means I can finally think about other things.

Dev recently said that he wants to play the Avatar game, which means I need to tweak it a bit. I might just end up blatantly stealing the fight mechanics from Mist-Robed Gate, because I think they’ll work mighty well. Then a few other tweaks and we’re off. The Avatar game still gets the most hits of anything on my website, so perhaps I should just release it through Bleeding Play in PDF form, once we playtest it a bunch more.

Push is definitely near the top of the list. I want to get the other articles from Push 1 up in HTML format on Bleeding Play, make the link to the PDF more prominent, type in the edits to her article that Em sent me months ago, and get Push 1 set up on Lulu so people can order print copies at cost. I also want to start getting some of the stuff from Push 2 up. Eero and Bill’s articles in particular are things I’ve been sitting on for many months. I just need to edit them, ask for a couple corrections from the authors, and post them up there.

Currently, it looks like Transantiago development may move to Secret Wars for a bit, since Shreyas has agreed to help me work on the passages from the rules that are supposed to be read aloud during play.

And then there’s Fingers on the Firmament, which I’ve been thinking about a ton and can’t wait to get to. Development-wise, I think it comes right after Transantiago, since Justin is still focused on getting the John Rain game done. It will rock some serious socks. Honestly, after playing 4th some more, I’m also interested in seeing the changes they’re coming out with for the GSL, on the outside chance that Firmament might be able to mine some of the better parts of the new edition. We’ll see.

Then, on the outside, things I still want to finish some day:
The Snow Queen

Avatar Wraps Up with Style (No Spoilers)

2008 Jul 21

So, I finally watched the last 6 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender yesterday night. They were a fitting end to one of the best series on television and put the astonishingly mediocre Season 2 finale to shame.

Interestingly, the writers totally faked me out. I was like, “Wait, after how progressive Avatar has been, they’re going to make the final battles be all about the male characters saving the world while the female characters wait on the sidelines? Plus they’re going to say that, in the end, sometimes murder is justified?” But then it wouldn’t be Avatar if they had done that, would it? It’s still a bit male-slanted, perhaps, but they do try to invert things, as they always have. And they really stayed true to their moral center, the thing that makes Avatar the best kid show ever, the thing that makes it a cartoon version of Dogs in the Vineyard.

The great thing too is that they ended the show after three seasons, when it was clearly a major success and they must have been pressured to do more. They may milk this cow for a bit longer in other forms, but that doesn’t change the fact that they came in, told the story they wanted to tell, and wrapped it up with a bow. They have given us a gift that can’t be taken away and I will always be thankful: for having a kids show where none of the characters are white, where the female characters are badass, where real moral choices are made, where consequences are dealt with, where there are no easy answers, where you don’t talk down to your audience, where culture is dealt with respectfully, where the martial arts are real, where you fall in love with all the characters, and where the story is one for the ages.

Very, very good stuff.


Style Sheets: Part 2

2008 Feb 28

This is a continuation of the last post.

So I played my Avatar: The Last Airbender game at Story Games Boston with people who’d never really watched the show before. There was a wandering drunken boxer, and that was still kind of okay, because he was pretty funny. Then there was a geisha house, but a “real” one that was about dancing and manners, not about prostitution, and that was mostly okay. But then the game got pushed more towards sex and violence, which totally isn’t what I want in my “kid show” entertainment, even in a Friday night kid show. It definitely surprised a number of the players and ended up being okay, but not great.

The main problem with that session of the Avatar game was that it ignored many of the things that make fanfic really work, and Avatar (like Primetime Adventures, like Buffy, like Serenity, like Dark Heresy, like Dragonlance) is driven by player familiarity with the material the game is inspired by and their ability to generate content that “feels like” the TV show or novels or miniatures game that they love.

Over multi-session play experiences, groups often create a similar shared understanding of the setting, characters, and general feel of play, but this takes time. The early sessions of a medium to long-term campaign can still feel a bit rough as the game “gets off the ground” and the divergent expectations of group members are ironed out over a series of interactions. However, in a one-session game, like a con game or a game system specifically designed to produce one-shots, we just don’t have time to wait for that. Instead, we have to fake it, and faking that shared background and understanding is hard.

My experience of running Geiger Counter at GenCon suggests that is might still be possible.

Geiger Counter is a game I’m working on that tries to do for survival horror movies what Primetime Adventures did for primetime television. I hope that the game can eventually recreate movies about serial killers, aliens, ghosts, supernatural monsters, giant sharks, dinosaurs, the undead, and natural disasters. The problem I was having in playtests was that all these movies feel somewhat different, even if they are all survival horror movies, and it was difficult to even get all the players on the same page about what kind of zombie movie they were playing out. Were these zombies fast or slow? Did they eat brains? Could they swim? And since not everyone has recently watched a whole bunch of zombie movies, the appropriate tropes are not always present in people’s frontal lobes where they can be easily picked through. Sometimes they’re hiding in the back recesses and people have trouble generating appropriate content on the fly.

However, the second time I ran Geiger Counter at GenCon, the game was a scheduled event (unlike the first, pick-up playtest at the Games On Demand booth), and it was advertised as being based on Roanoke, Clint Krause’s early colonial Carolina setting for Wushu. What happened? Well, honestly, I felt like Roanoke served as a kind of “style sheet” for the game. The monster was still a bit amorphous in nature (it was ghostly, corrupting, and also moved the earth around), but the characters and the setting seemed much more rock-solid than in previous playtests because everyone was on the same page, using the same type of setting and color elements, all drawn from the kind of things that Clint described in Roanoke (even if some of the players were not familiar with Clint’s work).

So there’s my inspiration: In a Wicked Age plus Roanoke. Oh, plus the Story Games Names Book, whose influence will become clear shortly.

With that in mind, I started thinking about what a “style sheet” for Geiger Counter might look like. Robert Ahrens said he wants giant sharks in the playtest I ran on Wednesday night, so I tried to make a giant shark style sheet. I first thought about the kinds of creative elements I needed players to come up with during a game of Geiger Counter. The ones I came up with were:

  • a setting,
  • character types,
  • character names,
  • trait dice (for the characters),
  • advantage dice (gained during play),
  • menace dice (describing threats to the characters),
  • locations,
  • epilogues (false endings when the monster seems to be defeated).

So here’s the style sheet I came up with, drawn from Jaws, Jaws 2, Deep Blue Sea, and my own imagination.


  • Settings: small beach town, Caribbean resort, remote fishing village, aquarium, SeaWorld, marine research facility, desalination plant, navy seal training base, illegal fishing boat (whaling ship, poachers), arctic research icebreaker, coast guard rescue ship, merchant marine vessel, modern pirate / smuggling vessel, military submarine, multi-million dollar underwater resort.
  • Character Types: local law enforcement officer, medical examiner, local politician, young innocent, professional shark hunter, marine biologist, dolphin / orca trainer, novice fisherman, professional fisherman, local hooligan, coast guard officer, scuba diver, wealthy yacht owner, water skier, real estate developer, scientist / researcher, shark wrangler, venture capitalist, corporate lawyer / inspector, former navy seal, ship captain, blue-collar sailor, concerned hotel employee, concerned mother, teenage son/daughter of any of the above.
  • Character Names: I’m gonna leave this to the Names Book.
  • Trait/Advantage Dice: Trait and advantage dice come in several general varieties…
    • Personal Attributes: excellent swimmer, shark attack surviver, etc.
    • Valuable Knowledge: shark specialist, chief geneticist on giant shark project, I know these waters, etc.
    • Tools: chum, fishing pole, harpoon, flotation barrel, shark-proof cage, hypodermic spear, pressurized air tank, rifle, gasoline tank, radio, etc.
    • Relationships: to any other characters.
    • Secondary Characters: sailors, policemen, junior researchers, etc. that the player controls.
    • Dark Secrets: head of the giant shark project, self-destructive Captain Ahab obsession, will doom you all to ensure my own survival, etc.
  • Menace Dice: three tons, teeth the size of your hand, hyper-intelligent, plays with its food, high risk of drowning, there’s a squall blowing, the engine’s dead, we’re sinking.
  • Locations: the beach, the docks, the open ocean, the listing boat with no one left alive, the shark tank, the cafe, the island, the record room, the fishing boat, the ice shelf, the hotel lobby, the pier, the lifeguard station, the coast guard ship, the rescue helicopter, your cabin, the main deck, the pilothouse, the foremast, the starboard side, underwater, the shark-proof cage.
  • Epilogues: I left this part blank, because I was running out of time, figuring most of these would be based on the events of play.

In the next post (since I need a part 3 now, after testing it out last night), I want to talk about how this worked in play and what I’m taking from it.