Archive for the 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Category

[GoPlayNW] Korra Playtest: Episodes 1 & 2

June 30, 2012

Oh man, so I got off work and came straight to GoPlayNW without any real prep or plans. Lukas texted me while I was on the bus asking if I could run the very sketchy Korra hack that I put together Sunday morning at Gamestorm after only seeing the first pirated episode online. Sure, but I needed copies of the character sheets. Luckily David lived nearby and agreed to go print us some sheets if he could play. Crisis averted!

Turned out that, almost as soon as the game started, it became clear that I’d written the core moves for fighting and bending (which are like half the show) totally wrong. Oh well. The character creation and setting-prep guidelines worked nearly perfectly and we fell back on just rolling the core elements and having our collective sense of the TV show carry us through. It was totally awesome! Furthermore, having actually played it now, I have a much better sense of what the moves need to look like, so the next version will be much better.

The Premise (minor show spoilers, but Jamie and David had just seen Avatar, not Korra, and we made an effort not to ruin things for them):

The pro-bending circuit has been shut down due to recent events, leaving only the triad-run underground “bare-knuckles” circuits where anything goes. I pitched to the 4 players that we should be an underground pro-bending squad (of 3) and then either their manager or an undercover cop or something like that.

The Characters

Leslie played Victoria Lee, the fire- and lightning-bending black sheep daughter of a wealthy industrialist family from Republic City. She started the pro-bending team (“The Spider-Rats!”) with two classmates from the academies (we said school was in the style of the Fire Nation, like in Avatar season 3), and they were planning on competing in the official circuit until it was shut down. She had a car and a swank apartment in a nice part of town, where she lives with her two pet fire-ferrets, Kiki and Rika. She also had a secret crush on Lyri.

David played Lyri, the water- and (secretly) blood-bending scion of a couple of first-generation Water Tribe immigrants who’d become triad accountants mostly out of desperation. Lyri was drawn into criminal activity from a relatively early age and lived in a community of houseboats in the middle of the bay, away from police eyes. When the pro-bending circuit was shutdown, it was Lyri who used his triad connections to work their way into the underground matches.

Jamie played Taka, a sand- and earth-bending immigrant from Kyoshi Island. All the girls there were trained to be Kyoshi Warriors, including his sister, while he and the other boys were left more directionless, so he became a beach bum, traveling the earth kingdom in search of adventure and good surf. He’d run into some triad smuggling activities while hanging out in the beach town on the ocean side of Republic City and eventually become the equivalent of a “session musician” for underground pro-bending, being assigned to other teams as needed if one of their players couldn’t compete (usually do to injury). We decided that the Spider-Rats’s normal earthbender — Victoria and Lyri’s classmate — broke both his legs in their first underground match, so Taka was assigned to their team at the last minute.

Lukas played Lo Shang, an older metal- and earth-bender from a prominent police family. Raised by his mother, a cop, he was expected to go to the police academy but decided to try the life of a pro-bender instead. But after suffering some injuries (the extent of which was unclear), he retired to coach younger athletes for the arena, partially as a way to get out of a massive debt to the Triple Threat triad, one he never seemed to be able to work off. Lo Shang lived in an old sparring gym next to the (now closed) stadium, under the pretense of training late into the night, though it seemed like the gym owner knew that he didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Episode 1

The first episode started with the Spider-Rats’ match against the Sun Cats, their first match since their original earthbender broke both his legs and they forfeited by refusing to continue. Taka has just been assigned to them and Lo Shang gives a very Gladiator-style speech about winning the crowd. As they head out, the winners of the previous match, the notorious Ice Goblins, sneer at them and even ice the floor as they enter the cage where the match will take place. Victoria firebends the ice away, humiliating and slightly singeing the lead Goblin.

The match takes place in a rusty cage in a warehouse basement, filled with mounds of dirt and rocks, but also partially flooded. Before the match begins, Lukas hilariously uses his phone to read off the official rules of pro-bending from an Avatar fan wiki, including all the things you’re normally not allowed to do. None of that will apply here. In the underground circuit, fights are done in “capture the flag” style, with each team having a small statue representing their name (in our team’s case, a Spider-Rat). Capturing the other team’s statue means you win the round, and best 2 out of 3 rounds prevails.

They lower a bell from above the cage and, off to the side, a mysterious figure wearing sunglasses in the style of aviator goggles tosses a few pebbles at the bell with amazing accuracy, hitting the bell and signaling the start of the fight.

Round One: Victoria botches her initial fight roll, so the Sun Cats’ waterbender freezes her hands — still holding their statue — in a pillar of ice. Next, Taka uses earthbending to create a bridge from one mound of earth to another, staying out of the water. The opposing earthbender grabs his bridge and pulls it upwards, turning it into a wall that divides the arena in half diagonally. Lyri uses the flooded pool to make a wave of water that slams the third Sun Cat into the corner now made by the cage and the earthen wall, but part of the wall crumbles and collapses on the Sun Cat, pinning him underwater and also hiding him from the view of the “referee” who’s supposedly overseeing the match. Victoria firebends her way out of the ice, Lyri saves the Sun Cat from drowning, and Taka does a wall-run on the stone wall and handily swipes the Sun Cats’ statue to win the round.

Round Two: The Sun Cats are down to two members, since the half-drowned kid is carted away. The teams switch sides of the arena, giving the Sun Cats the high ground and leaving the Spider-Rats in the now muddy bottom of the pool, since most of the water is now splashed on the crowd. Victoria gets off to a better start, fireblasting the Sun Cat holding the statue off the top of the wall and sending him falling into the mud. The earthbending Sun Cat gets really angry and first uses some advanced sandbending to create a glass dagger that he sends flying at Taka. When Take easily blocks it with an earthen wall, the Cat uses his powers to lift the entire arena off the ground, causing it to shudder about and send people flying everywhere. Lyri pulls all the water and sweat off the crowd and uses it to knock the Sun Cats’ statue into his hands, winning the round and the match. The earthbending Sun Cat lets out a sigh of, “Oh, man,” and drops the entire arena, causing everyone to end up covered in mud and dirt.

Later, in the showers, there’s some great in-character banter where Victoria is frustrated about not being badass enough in the match, but offers to let Taka stay in her apartment instead of forcing him to sleep on the beach. Lyri mostly seems concerned about their money, as he’s trying to raise enough to leave Republic City and his family’s triad dealings far behind. Victoria is shocked that he (her secret crush) really doesn’t want to be here.

Lo Shang goes to talk with Jad, the Triple Threat bookie who runs the fights, about their money. Jad is counting up the take and whispering with the mysterious dude in sunglasses. Jad says that the Spider-Rats’ winnings from this fight just barely covers buying back into the circuit after they forfeited the last time (due to refusing to continue after their teammate’s injury), so they won’t earn any money until after the next fight. Lo Shang complains about the cost of food and training and the sunglasses dude interrupts him and says, “It’s okay, I’ll cover them,” pushing forward some money out of the triad funds. “I’m sure you’re good for it.” Lo Shang goes back and splits the money with the rest of the team, with a great line about “Don’t look a gift wolf-horse in the mouth!” when people complain about how meager it is.

Victoria wants to go out for noodles, but Lyri says that he can’t waste money on frivolous stuff like that. Victoria offers to treat him and then Lo Shang says, “That’s a great idea; let’s all go out for some team bonding,” which was not Victoria’s idea at all. They all go to a noodle shop, part of a regional chain founded decades ago by Uncle Iroh, and are slurping noodles when Taka’s crush, Mona — a perky Equalist rally-goer — walks by with another guy. She says, “Hi Taka, is this your… girlfriend?” pointing at Victoria, who is sitting next to him. Lo Shang pipes up with, “No, you’re looking at the Spider-Rats: Republic City’s next great pro-bending team!” Taka tries to play this off — since Mona doesn’t know he’s a bender — by saying, “Haha, Lo Shang, you’re such a joker!” and quickly walking down the road with Mona and her friend Khan, away from the noodle house. Mona says that she and Khan are headed to an Equalist rally later in the week, the same day as the Spider-Rats’ next match, and invites Taka to come. He agrees and it’s clear that Khan is a jerk and is suspicious of Taka. Back at the noodle shop, Victoria tries to flirt with Lyri, but Lo Shang’s boisterous enthusiasm keeps getting in the way.

Eventually Victoria and Taka head back to Victoria’s apartment, and Taka marvels at how nice it is and meets her pet fire-ferrets. They collapse into bed and fall asleep.

Lyri heads down to the harbor, stalked by some mysterious figures who include the Sun Cat that he saved from nearly drowning, and takes his personal kayak back out to the houseboat that he shares with his large family. When he gets home, a minor Triple Treat boss is going over some accounting details with his father and saying terrible things about rustics from the Water Tribe. His mother is restraining herself from punching the boss in the face, but is concerned about Lyri when he appears and has obviously been fighting. Lyri brushes off her concern and goes off to hide in his own “room”, which is just separated by curtains from the rest of the boat. However, before he nods off to sleep, a Triple Threat gangster comes in and says they have a job for him that pays decent money, but doesn’t let him ask any questions about it. Dreaming of getting the money to get away from all of this, Lyri agrees.

Finally, the episode closes with Lo Shang heading back to his sparring gym to sleep on the floor, when he gets jumped in an alley by a bunch of thugs who seem to have some ties with the Sun Cats. They kick out his bad knee and loom over him as he lies on the ground. Lo Shang begins to use metal-bending on his cane to take some of them out, but the leader makes it clear that any violence will not end well for him. The thugs say that this is retaliation for one of the Sun Cats almost drowning under that rubble during the match, but Lo Shang asserts that pro-bending is dangerous and sometimes people get hurt. The lead thug threatens ominously: “You’re right, people DO get hurt.” And they all walk away.

Roll credits.

Episode 2

The second episode of the night launched with Lyri rolling a “gig”-style move to see how his errand for the Triple Threats went. Mixed result. Turns out the triad had a old hearse that they used to smuggle things, so the job involved picking up some coffins from various parts of the city and then loading them out onto a ship out near the beach shantys beyond the inner harbor, the ones that Taka used to hang out and surf near. But the triad smugglers on the boat needed an extra pair of hands to unload the coffins at their destination and Lyri, as the new kid, got picked. He gritted his teeth and agreed.

We flashed over to see what the other characters were doing. Victoria was just waking up from nightmares about her anxieties of failing in the ring, screaming Lyri’s name as he was burnt to a crisp. Taka is there and reassures her by offering totally inappropriate advice based on his own experiences: i.e. she should just run away from everything that upsets her.

Lo Shang goes to visit his mom, the semi-retired police sergeant, who cooks him a ridiculous meal and then teases him about not being married. Lo’s mom says she told an ambitious female police officer that Lo Shang teaches combatives and indicates that the officer might stop by his gym for a practice session, suggesting pretty blatantly that Lo Shang should ask her on a date. Lo objects that he can’t have cops involved in his activities, but his mom sweeps his protests aside.

Back in the harbor, Lyri helps the triad smugglers unload the coffins behind Aang’s giant statue in the middle of the bay, which they claim is prime smuggling real estate because “Nobody ever comes here anymore, except for during festivals.” As the smugglers begun to ready the ship for departure, Lyri hears a tapping sound coming from one of the coffins and a voice says: “Is anybody there? You have to help me!” Lyri, alarmed, tells the speaker to be quiet and quickly walks over to leave with the smugglers… only to come back later in the day, in his own kayak, bringing a hatchet which he uses to break open the coffin. Inside, he finds a recent arrival from the Northern Water Tribe, a young noblewoman named Taeda Tanaka who was kidnapped by the Triple Threats and is being ransomed to her family. Lyri knows he’s likely to be in serious trouble with the triads for helping her escape, but he kayaks her across the harbor and plans to hide her in the sparring gym that Lo Shang lives in.

Meanwhile, at morning practice, Victoria is the only one who has arrived on time, so Lo Shang tries to teach her some snappy repertoire to use during matches (like “If you mess with fire, you’re gonna get burned!”). At that moment, Alisha the policewoman walks in the front door, inspects the very obvious and illegal pro-bending training equipment in the room, takes off her metal armor, and begins practicing earthbending. She’s good, but her control is not what it once was, as she’s gotten used to the precision of metalbending, and she takes out one of the gym windows with a practice stone. At that point, Taka walks in and Lo Shang tries to turn attention away from Alisha’s awkward presence by encouraging him to try that glassbending trick the Sun Cats’ sandbender did during the last match, maybe even to fix the broken window. Taka gives it a fair shot (I warned that he could only succeed on a 12+), but the sand he pulled from a old punching bag simply explodes all over the room, getting in everyone’s hair and clothes.

And that’s when Lyri and Taeda arrived, just in time to get a face full of sand. Alisha says: “Wait, you’re Taeda Takana, aren’t you? We’ve been looking for you all week! Where have you been?” But Lyri nails a manipulation roll to half-convince the cop that Taeda is “my cousin, Mika, visiting from the Southern Water Tribe.” Alisha looks at him squinty but doesn’t make a move. She does however tell Lo Shang that she wants to polish up her earthbending and that, if he’ll help her improve back to her formal level of mastery, that she won’t report any of his illicit doings here in the gym and in the illegal pro-bending circuit. Lo Shang agrees, not really having much choice (plus a little bit smitten). Feeling jealous and wanting to keep Taeda away from Lyri, Victoria offers to let her live in her apartment as well, so she doesn’t have to live in the gym with Lo Shang.

On the day of their next match, Taka goes to the Equalist rally to meet up with Mona, who is there with Khan. Mona gives Taka an earful of Equalist rhetoric and Khan asks awkward questions like “So when did you first feel that something had to be done about benders?” Then Amon appears to give a speech, but they’re too far away to properly hear him, so Mona grabs both the boys and tries to push her way to the front of the crowd. Taka actually uses earthbending to try to subtly clear their path to Amon (!!!), and nails his role, so no one else is the wiser. They catch the last of Amon’s speech and then Khan goes backstage to meet Amon personally. Taka and Mona talk a bit about their ideals and then Taka tries to impress her by dragging her backstage to meet Amon as well. However, just as they get there, they see Khan getting into an Equalist van with Amon and driving away. Mona looks heartbroken that Khan’s left to be a “real Equalist” without her.

Then it was time for the second match, which took place on an old houseboat floating out beyond the harbor, where the police could only track them down after it was too late. Of course, Taka was missing because he was at the Equalist rally and the triads were starting to pressure Lo Shang about finding an alternate. It looked for a moment like Lo Shang himself might be forced to step in, but then Alisha appeared out of nowhere, wearing the trademark Spider-Rat headband around her eyes as a mask, and said that she was Taka’s replacement. Ding! The bell sounded.

Round One: This match was against the Ice Goblins, who they’d encountered just before the match with the Sun Cats. The Ice Goblins were all waterbenders (since underground bending doesn’t require a proper distribution of benders) and began by freezing the water beneath the boat into an iceberg and tipping it up on one end. Alisha slid down the deck and grabbed the side, just before sliding into the water. Lyri turned the iceberg into a thousand shards, sending it flying towards the Goblins, and then Victoria finally decided she would do something awesome, firing off bolts of lighting through the iceshards making a massive cloud of thundersnow that electrocuted the Ice Goblins and sent their statue tumbling into the ocean below. Lyri jumped in the water after it but saw that Taeda had secretly come to the match and had actually dove in after the statue as well, trying to be helpful. Meanwhile, Alisha, missing the absence of her armor, used metalbending to extract a bunch of nails from the boat and mold them into a metal gauntlet around her fist. She then launched herself at the remaining Ice Goblins and started pummeling them with the help of Victoria, who was blasting flame and lightning everywhere. Lyri made it to Taeda, who in turn had the statue, but the water above them was frozen over and they were trapped beneath it. Lyri used her bending to separate out a disk of ice above them and turn it over, flipping them up onto the surface. The bell sounded: they had won the round.

Round Two: There was only one Ice Goblin left standing, and he gripped the statue looking very intimidated. Alisha, who was holding the Spider-Rats’ statute, strode menacingly across the sinking remains of the boat towards their only opponent and threatened to brain him with her statue. Giving up, the Goblin passed his statue over to her and she raised them both over her head in triumph. Ding! They were victorious.

Afterward, walking back home soaking wet and shivering, Victoria confronts Taka, as he had arrived late wearing an Equalist badge he picked up at the rally. He responds: “Well, the Equalists have a point! Maybe there should be a governing council of six members, three benders and three non-benders! Or, since there are so many more non-benders, maybe it should be by population, with 5 non-benders and only 1 bender!” Victoria was about to say something but then admitted that the Equalists did have a point. She asserted, however, that she wasn’t objecting to their goals, necessarily, just the way they went about achieving them.

Finally, the episode ended with the mysterious guy in sunglasses sneaking into Victoria’s apartment while everyone is off at the match, slipping his way past the easily distracted fire-ferrets. Tip-toeing from room to room, he manages to stumble across Taeda’s embroidered Water Tribe parka lying on one of the beds. He picks it up and examines it. “Interesting…”

Roll credits.

Korra Hack: Playtest Version

March 26, 2012

So last Thursday I watched a Youtube stream of the unreleased first episode of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender. And, since we were at Gamestorm and all excited, I wrote a little one-page Apocalypse World hack for running it. There’s a lot about this playtest draft that won’t be clear at all from just looking at it (it’s just a character sheet and most of the game only exists in my head), but I wanted to share anyway. I didn’t end up getting to playtest it or try some of the ideas out in practice, but hopefully soon.

In any event, you can download the game here: The Legend of You.

Ghost Opera Layout Sketch

April 28, 2010

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

December 18, 2008

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

October 22, 2008

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

August 26, 2008

Book 4: Air Example, Series Discussion

August 26, 2008

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

August 22, 2008

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

August 21, 2008

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

August 21, 2008

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)

July 21, 2008

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

February 28, 2008

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.