The Avatar Game

Explanation

This is the working draft of my Avatar: The Last Airbender game, which will be updated as the revision and playtest process goes on.

CHOOSING PRIMARY CHARACTERS

When a group of friends or family members gather together to play this game, each player will play one primary character. There will also be dozens of secondary characters that will be played by various members of the group as needed.

The main characters in Avatar — both the show and this game — are young people who have been roughly thrown into adulthood by forces beyond their control. Consider the following non-exhaustive list of characters from the series who would make great primary characters in your game:

  • Water Tribe: Katara, Sokka, Yue, Hahn, Sangok
  • Earth Kingdom: Toph, Suki, Haru, Jet, Longshot, Smellerbee, June, Teo, Meng, Lee, Song, Ghashiun, Jin
  • Fire Nation: Zuko, Azula, Mai, Ty Lee
  • Air Nomads: Aang

Note that many of these characters have no bending abilities but still know how to kick butt: Sokka, Suki & the Kyoshi Warriors, Jet & the Freedom Fighters, June, Mai, Ty Lee, and others. Bending is not a requirement for being a primary character.

The primary characters in your game can come from the list above, be other characters from the show (even unnamed ones such as Master Pakku’s students or members of the Kyoshi Warriors), be characters that you created yourselves, or be a mixture of any of the above.

Playing adults as primary characters is also possible, especially if, like Uncle Iroh, they tend to spend most of their time with younger characters. However, one of the main themes of Avatar involves young people dealing with problems that adults haven’t figured out how to solve. If you choose to create a bunch of primary characters who are adults, realize that the feel of the game will likely be somewhat different.

Location and Time Period

While members of the group are deciding what primary characters each person wants to play, it’s important to consider when and where the game will be taking place. Perhaps you want your game to start during the events of Book One, maybe right after the Avatar visits your village on the way to the North Pole. Perhaps your game takes place hundreds of years ago when Kyoshi was the Avatar and she was resisting the army of Chin The Great. Perhaps your game takes place during the 100 years when Aang was frozen in ice and there was no Avatar.

A game set two generations ago (i.e. the grandparents of the current cast) could include the following characters from the show, as young women and men:

Is your game going to start in a particular location? Book One starts at the South Pole, where Katara, Sokka, Aang, Zuko, and Iroh all start out. Note, however, that the characters do not all have to start out at the same location or even stay together during the course of the game. For most of the series, small groups of characters (Katara, Sokka, Aang, Toph; Zuko, Iroh; Azula, Mai, Ty Lee; Jet & the Freedom Fighters; Suki & the Kyoshi Warriors) are not in the same place. While you can certainly choose to play a group of primary characters that stick together most of the time, you could also play characters that only meet occasionally.

DESCRIBING PRIMARY CHARACTERS

Whether you’ve decided to play a character from the show or to create your own character, it’s your responsibility to describe them.

After discussing your character ideas with the group, fill out some of the information at the top of the character sheet. Which nation are you from? What village and family? How old are you? Are you female or male? These are the character traits that generally won’t change, though your character can have a birthday or two over the course of the game if you like.

Choosing Greater Dharma Paths

Character development in this game is handled by things called Dharma Paths. Dharma Paths come in two varieties, Greater Dharma Paths and Lesser Dharma Paths. Lesser Dharma Paths are discussed later.

A Greater Dharma Path is a long-term character goal, something that would take most of an entire Book, dozens of episodes, to accomplish. You might say that Aang’s Greater Dharma Path in most of Book One is “Find a Waterbending Master” or that Toph’s in Book Two is “Escape from My Parents.”

What are one or two of the long-term goals of your character? You should talk about these with the other players and them write them down in the appropriate spaces on your character sheet. The primary characters should probably have some Greater Dharma Paths that tie them to each other, both in cooperation and antagonism, but no two characters can have the exact same Dharma Path.

Character Traits

There are four different types of traits and each type is associated with a particular element. The trait types are inspired by the four Chinese characters that are associated with the elements in the intro sequence of the TV series.

1. 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.

2. 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).

3. 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.

4. 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 incarnations (Avatar Kyoshi), and anything else.

Before play begins, create a few traits. I suggest three to five. Write them in the appropriate boxes.

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. 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.

8. 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: Flexibility (Yin), Obstinacy (Yang)
  • Earth: Obstinacy (Yang), Cunning (Yin)
  • Fire: Cunning (Yin), Recklessness (Yang)
  • Air: Recklessness (Yang), Flexibility (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.

LESSER 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.

SECONDARY CHARACTERS

1. Each secondary character is basically a single dharma path.

2. Name the character, name their path, and pick an element for them.

3. Secondary characters do not move between elements, but stay on one.

4. Secondary characters gain steps on their path after scenes, just like protagonists.

5. Secondary characters are always treated as if they are moving from their element to another element. Of course, they only have one element, so they don’t actually change. They’re stuck there and all their actions are viewed based on the yin and yang characteristics of that element.

6. When a secondary character’s path is resolved, they can no longer antagonize the protagonists and their remaining scenes should deal with wrapping up their place in the story.

If you were using Prince Zuko as a secondary character, he might be:

Zuko (Fire)
Path: “Capture the Avatar”

At this point in the game’s development, I’m also okay with groups (the Yuyan Archers) and non-human entities (Hei Bai, The Drill) functioning as secondary characters.

You probably don’t want to have a secondary character that’s The Fire Nation Is Destroying Kyoshi Island and give them the path “Destroy Kyoshi Island,” since that’s redundant. Besides, that’s really a situation and not a character. When in doubt, remember that you can also have challenges represented by the dharma paths of the characters themselves. If a primary or secondary character has the path “Protect Kyoshi Island,” I think that should work just as well. Flip it around and see if it works better.

Secondary characters that show up in more than a couple episodes should probably be made into potential protagonists. Unless they’re The Cabbage Guy.

When creating secondary characters that are meant to serve as antagonists to the primary characters, players should consider making the new characters’ core dharma paths (which are basically all secondary characters are) the inverse of — or more extreme versions of — the primary characters’ paths or traits. For example:

1. Sokka is ambitious. He wants to make his father proud of him. He wants to protect his village. He wants to be recognized as a great warrior and be adored by beautiful women. In turn, Admiral Zhao is a more extreme, negative version of Sokka’s ambition. He wants to feared. He wants to be a great conquerer. And he is willing to do just about anything to get what he wants.

2. Kitara is stubborn, especially when people don’t think much of her waterbending abilities (like Sokka) or find waterbending to be easier than she does (like Aang) or think less of her because she’s a girl (multiple people). Master Pakku is a more extreme and negative version of Kitara’s subbornness, since he refuses to teach her waterbending because she is a girl. This combines all three of Kitara’s pet peeves above and opposes her stubbornness with even more stubbornness.

3. Zuko is really intense. Like ridiculously so. He needs a chill pill. He needs to stop and enjoy a cup of jasmine tea. Thus, Uncle Iroh is his perfect foil. Though a former general, Iroh wants more than a quiet, simple life of peaceful indulgence. He likes to sing songs and take naps. Zuko never takes naps.

4. Suki is the opposite of Sokka’s ideal girl. Sokka likes beautiful, non-threatening princesses like Yue. He wants girls who look pretty, cheer him on when he does heroic things, and worry about his safety. Suki is none of those things. Suki kicks Sokka’s ass. She’s a warrior maiden who ridicules Sokka’s stupid posturing and destroys many of his sexist misconceptions. She’s the one who initiates the relationship with Sokka, not the other way around.

5. Aang believe in the sanctity of the remaining Air Temples. He hopes that they contain some of the surviving Air Nomads. If not, they are tombs and massacre sites, not something to be dabbled with. They are sources of extreme pain and emotional vulnerability for him. However, for The Inventor, they are just empty buildings with neat stuff inside that can be used for practical purposes. So he jury rigs a bunch of stuff together and turns one into his automated workshop.

Even minor secondary characters can be created in this way. Being an antagonist does not mean that the character wants the kill one or more protagonists. In fact, that’s not especially interesting. More often, they simply seek things — for their own purposes — that happen to make the protagonists extremely frustrated.

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.

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