Okay, wow. Still drilling through this pile of games and, yeah, we’re into the second quarter of the year already. But there are games to read and things to say. Let’s get into it.
Reminder that these are read-only reviews I’m doing! I haven’t gotten to play these games so they’re not deep technical dives.
Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “If I won the lottery, I would publish the biggest game you’ve ever seen.” Magpie Games did pretty much that. I don’t envy them! They earned more than US$9 million on their Kickstarter (lots of which went straight back to Viacom, I’m sure) but that also brought lots of weirdness. What do you do with the biggest indie RPG Kickstarter campaign of all time?
Avatar Legends is a PbtA game about playing element-bending and other extraordinarily talented people in one of five eras established in the world of Avatar: the two shows, books, everything I think. I’m not really a fan of Avatar although my daughter is, but I adored The Legend of Korra, the higher-tech sequel featuring some crossover characters with the original show. Never seen the novels or graphic novels. I’m not a hardcore fan of the series, in other words.
The design team, though. Hooboy, they definitely needed to keep the hardcore fans in mind. I have to think the vast majority of backers wanted an Avatar thing, not necessarily an RPG. The way they bridge that gap is actually pretty clever.
So I sit down with the text, right? Huge damned book. I cannot imagine a tween fan of the show ever deciphering it (although the boxed set that you can get in Target may be another matter). I have a hell of a time deciphering it myself. So much backstory. So much history. So, so many show references. I just don’t care about any of this! Stop!
But then I think about how the setting material was treated in Tales of Xadia, which was far more limited and depends, I think, on players being fans of The Dragon Prince. You know the setting and what the stories are about just by being exposed to the show (which wasn’t quite enough for me to play beyond a brief run). Magpie’s strategy on Avatar Legends is to go the other way. It is … a lot. Like, on par with Exalted or some other canon-heavy tome.
Avatar Legends lets you play in one of five eras, from a deep mythic-ancient era all the way up to the Republic City era of Korra. Tons of details. The smart thing they do is synopsize each subheader of material with a list of bullet points: actionable stuff you can use from each section. You don’t have to do a massive canon download followed by a massive canon dump on the players. Once I realized I didn’t actually have to read all this stuff, it got a lot easier going. What a relief.
Between the core rulebook and the Wan Shi Tong’s Adventure Guide the all-in backer level came with, you’ve got 14 playbooks to work with. They remind me a lot of how Brendan Conway, the lead designer on Avatar Legends, built the playbooks in Masks around clear teen-hero tropes. Where Masks does, like, “the one where you’re basically an alien” or “the one where you’re a misunderstood monster,” Avatar Legends sets up the playbooks around pairs of principles the character is constantly pulled between. Like The Idealist is pulled between forgiveness and action, or The Prodigy is pulled between excellence and community. They’re not exactly opposed! The pairs are all more like…mutually incompatible in interesting ways. Your playbook wants both things but can’t really have both things.
Besides the paired principles, the other killer app of the game is that it goes deep into techniques, which are basically conflict-specific moves. It feels maybe a little overwrought, just looking at the seven-step system involved and the accompanying deck of cards. But given the martial arts focus of the show, it’s thematically solid. You don’t use it all the time; it’s more like the special focus that happens when you enter the Fight! minigame in Burning Wheel.
You can also tell Magpie knows Avatar Legends may be many gamers’ first exposure to something that is both very mainstream and not 5th Edition. There is way more material about this style of game than most readers of this blog will need — basics like fictional positioning and hard vs soft moves — as well as, hilariously, multiple repeated very patient explanations that there are no “bending moves” in the game. If you’re a fire bender, that fictionally positions you to execute any of your moves by doing it with fire. It’s very similar to the Masks approach that says there is no “energy blast” move, but if that’s your schtick then that’s how you’ll directly engage a threat or unleash your powers. I dig it, I think it’s the most direct way to bypass the physics-model approach that could have easily buried an Avatar game under impregnable bullshit.
That said…there kind of are bender moves. But they’re “techniques” rather than core moves. Other than the name, they’re more or less moves, just used specifically in their new Combat Exchange system. So, sigh, yes if you really need to know what happens if you’re a lavabender, or whatever, there’s an advanced technique with more details about that.
Personally what interests me the most is the moves around your principles. You can call someone out or be called out for violating principles, which again feels a bit like how adults mess with your stats in Masks. I think Avatar Legends largely assumes the characters are young (although there’s an Elder playbook in the mix), but rather than leveraging the social tension between teens and adults, Avatar Legends leverages the tension within yourself of valuing two competing things, and what happens when someone pushes your buttons. And if you get pushed hard enough for long enough in one direction, you might just give up one of your principles. That’s great stuff.
The all-in delivery brought me the core rulebook, the Adventure Guide, a cloth map (no idea what to do with this, but it’s nice), a deck of cards to simplify the Combat Exchange system, a dice bag, some element-themed dice, and a bunch of blank notebooks.
Will I ever play Avatar Legends? Maybe. I mean, it’s well done. It’s clearly polished to a high sheen. Maybe too high? Magpie has become the Apple of indie games, all rounded off edges and refined to exacting standards — but I kind of miss the slightly rough edges of Urban Shadows or Epyllion. My daughter, age 11, spent an hour looking over my shoulder and got excited to see Toph and Sokka and a Sky Bison and Uncle Iroh. She’s the biggest fan in my house. But would she get the principles game? The Combat Exchange system? Only one way to find out.
Desperation, by Jason Morningstar under his Bully Pulpit brand, is actually two card-driven storygames in one box. They both use the same system. They are both so, so bleak but also tinged with jet-black comedy. If you’ve played other Morningstar jams like Fiasco, you know what I mean.
The core mechanical conceit of Desperation is that the central creative tension when you play isn’t deciding what terrible things to say, but who says the terrible things. To repeat something I said in the intro: I haven’t played these games! So I really don’t know how it plays out. But that’s the thing the game does.
When you crack open one of the decks — either Dead House, about townsfolk caught in a blizzard in 1888, or The Isabel, about the final voyage of a fishing boat off the coast of Alaska, also in 1888 — you’re given instructions on how to arrange and shuffle the cards and an explanation of how to deploy the locations and the people who are the first cards you’ll draw. These become your map, so to speak, so you can more easily visualize who’s where.
Once you start drawing the actual story-driving cards, you decide which character will speak…and then you can continue speaking, as that character, for a bit, if you want. It’s a nice way to really storygame-ify the whole thing rather than just slapping down cards.
Games play out in an hour or two, handle up to five players, and they aren’t at all mechanically complex. Honestly, I’m looking forward to having a bad time, not a long time, with folks playing either or both of these at an upcoming convention. Fingers crossed they’re replayable! I believe they have to be, given the randomness of how the decks are assembled.
Claw Atlas (Beak, Feather & Bone)
Claw Atlas popped up in the middle of 2022 to some very light hype among folks I respect. It’s an expansion to a previous game called Beak, Feather & Bone, by Tyler Crumrine of Possible Worlds Games. By backing Claw Atlas I was able to get the original game as well.
BFB describes itself as a “lightly competitive mapmaking game.” Is it an RPG? Oh gosh, who cares? If The Quiet Year is an RPG, Beak is right there with it.
Play couldn’t be simpler: You start with an overhead city map (the original game came with one, Claw Atlas adds 10 more) and choose a faction of bird people you’ll represent. The game says it can handle 10 players; there are 12 total factions between Beak and Claw. You can also just choose to play more than one faction, whatever, I’m not your dad. It’s not that kind of “lightly competitive” game. In fact I’d say it’s not competitive at all.
Through the course of play, players take turns drawing cards from a standard deck of playing cards. The suit tells you what kind of building you’re going to talk about; the value tells you how much sway your faction has in the city. You pick a building on your map, color it in with your color, and then say what folks say about the place (Beak), what it looks like (Feather) and what it hides inside (Bone). Do that four or five times, you’ve just played the game. Highest total value of cards you’ve drawn gets to end out the game by defining the map’s Seat of Power. That’s it (and that’s why it’s not really competitive at all; you have no control over the card values, just your descriptions).
I really do like these map-making games. I don’t get strong characterization out of them but it’s fun to vibe with your friends. And over time, these kinds of games do accumulate a kind of narrative as your descriptions incorporate others’ contributions. Probably takes less than two hours to play, and it’s pretty affordable. You might maybe even take what you created and plop it into a more conventional fantasy RPG. Kind of the Microscope trick where folks define elaborate histories for their games and then play a different game in that setting.
Finally finishing this series with Haxen, Traveller’s Ironsworn, and Under Hollow Hills.
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