Posted by: markfender | March 28, 2012

Avatar: the Last Airbender the RPG

So, with the excitement about the new Avatar series on Nickelodeon, naturally my brain turns to figuring out how to make an RPG out of it.

Unfortunately, I have too much else going on right now to really think about working on such a project. So, here’s my regurgitated thoughts on the matter that you can steal and make your own awesome game from.

It seems obvious to me that characters in Avatar should have four attributes corresponding to the 4 elements: Fire (active physical), Air (active mental), Water (reactive physical), and Earth (reactive mental). I’m not sold on those correlations quite yet, but that’s the basic idea. I really want to throw in another attribute to represent some roleplaying aspects…which unfortunately leads me to make Heart the fifth attribute. However, that’s a no-go for obvious reasons, so instead I think it might be cool to have players come up with their own fifth personality attribute. Katara’s might be Caring, Zuko’s might be Honor, and Jet’s might be Ambiguous. I’d probably steal some from Mouse Guard’s Nature attribute for the mechanics on this personality attribute (You can replace another attribute with your Nature attribute, but the action must be in line with the nature of the, er, Nature. Of course, that throws in a fun personality mechanic where you could gradually lose points from this Attribute as you use it for the wrong reasons…leading to situations where Azula’s Cunning Attribute gradually switches to a Paranoid Attribute).

As for skills, I’d probably keep it pretty light. I lean towards just more descriptive skills similar to supposedly how the new D&D 5th edition is handling them. And I don’t think I’d bother with ranks of skills either, instead just allowing an applicable skill to add a bonus to a roll.

As for system, I think I’d go with Attributes and skills determining how many d6s you roll. Roll all those dice, total them, and beat a target number (More on target numbers later). The ‘twist’ is that if you roll higher than your target number, you can shift those dice that rolled higher into a “Power pool” of extra dice. You’d accumulate those Power dice as you perform actions and spend them on activating your cool abilities. I’d be tempted to divide the Power pool into two separate pools: Bending and Non-Bending (but hopefully with more evocative names), just to force the Benders to diversify their accumulating Dice (to maybe give the Non-Benders the benefit of the doubt). So, for example, if your target number was 7 and you rolled 4 dice and managed to roll 4 on all of them, you could shift two of those dice into a Power Pool (leaving two dice that add up to 8, beating the target number).

The big problem with an Avatar-type game is the three power levels: Bending, Bending martial arts, and regular martial arts. Aang throws around the Air quite a bit, but he’s still an accomplished martial artist. Likewise, Zuko can bend some fire, but The Blue Spirit concentrates entirely on martial arts. I tend to think of it in three tiers, because the Bending martial arts are really just moves that accent the Bending and aren’t as accomplished as something like Mai’s Rain-of-Daggers style. But they’re not exactly nothing, so they might need to be included in some way. In whatever ways power are purchased, I’d probably limit Benders from learning the higher-levels of martial arts, just to give the Normals a leg up somewhere.

So, how’s Bending work? I think I’d make it a build-your-own-powers-system (hopefully simplified, though from most of those type of systems because those always get a little complicated (I’m looking at you Ars Magica).). It seems to me that Benders improvise a lot and I’d like to encourage that in the game. So, I think I’d follow this format: [Form][Maneuver][Effect]. [Form] is pretty obvious: what kind of Bending are you using? I’d want conditions attached to each Form. For instance, Fire adds damage, Water dazes, and Air knocks back (Not sold on those exact effects but let’s go with that for now). You could also tier the [Form]s to allow things like Water/Ice or Fire/Lightning where the higher Forms would have different effects and probably cost more to activate. [Maneuver]s would be the basic building blocks of what you’re trying to do. To choose two easy examples: Blast and Wall. Blast is obviously looking to do damage and would include rules for that, whereas Wall is looking to block someone from attacking you or from reaching you. Combining the [Form] and a [Maneuver] would give you the basic power: A Fire Blast would do damage (with a bonus from it being a Fire [Form]), an Air Blast would do damage (but knock you back from its special Air [Form] effect), and a Water Wall would keep people away (again, with its special Water [Form] bonus in there somewhere). Mixing and matching these would give you the basic power structure for Bending. [Effect] is just a placeholder for now but would include those outside effects that aren’t necessarily connected to the Bending Form or Maneuver – like how many Targets you’re affecting. Each of these factors would cost a certain amount of Power Dice, so as you activate and build your powers, you’d need to spend your accumulated dice to use ’em. Obviously, there’s a lot more that could go into that (How you gain the Forms and Maneuvers, for instance, or the proviso that Water needs a source of water nearby to activate) but them’s the basics. (You’ll notice I totally neglected Earth in all of that. That’s because Earth confuses me. You’d think making big rocks would be pretty standard, but if you analyze the show, Earth seems to be more akin to telekinesis than actually using the earth itself. I’m still pondering that one.) And obviously, your Sand/Swamp/Blood Bending would be subsets of those power structures, similar to prestige classing.

So, what about poor Sokka? Well, first of all, I’d make sure his Crafty Personality Attribute is pretty high so that he can activate it more often and get more dice than equivalent characters. But that’s where the ‘normal’ martial arts come in as well. I think I’d structure these in a three-tier format with an Opening Move (costing few Power dice), an Active Move (costing a few Power dice and being ‘sustainable’ from round to round), and a Finishing Move (costing the most Power dice but having a decisive effect). The basic idea would be that they whip out their Opening Move (Example: Ty Lee closes the distance to her target). They then would have the option of using a different Opening Move or using the Active Move of the previously used Opening Move (Example: Ty Lee begins hitting pressure points, giving accumulating penalties to her target). A Finishing Move would require the appropriate Active Move to be used in the previous round and require a large amount of power dice (to be accumulated over several rounds of Active Moves) but would have a big decisive effect (Example: Ty Lee paralyzes her target, preventing them from taking any additional actions). It’s less flexible than Bending, but could be balanced against Bending to allow martial artists to stand toe-to-toe with a Bender.

So, what would target numbers be? My answer actually hinges on a different question – what about movement? Should there be maps? I think not. Characters in Avatar seem pretty flexible about their positioning (it’s all those damned martial arts). Instead, I think I’d go with the system for positioning from The One Ring RPG. In that game, your attack target number is the same as your defense target number – People up front in the fight have an easier time hitting, but are also hit pretty easily. People in the back are well-protected but also don’t hit their targets much. So I think I’d aim for some sort of positioning system like that. That gives my example [Maneuver] of Wall something to do (keep people from changing position) and provides some cool martial arts room as well (Ty Lee’s Opening Move above lets her ignore those Wall effects to close with her enemies).

The last question is probably the hardest: how do you emulate the Avatar State? There’s two related concerns there: 1. How do you balance having access to the Avatar State with people who aren’t Avatars (Answer: make it really hard to activate? I’m not sure), and 2. what are its game effects? That last one’s easier to answer: let the Avatar State build powers with multiple [Forms]. A [Fire][Water] Blast would be an entirely different beast. I might also give the Avatar State some free Bending Power Dice every turn to represent the badness.

I have no idea how to balance the Melon Lord, though. That shit be broken.



  1. You’ll notice I totally neglected Earth in all of that. That’s because Earth confuses me. You’d think making big rocks would be pretty standard, but if you analyze the show, Earth seems to be more akin to telekinesis than actually using the earth itself. I’m still pondering that one.

    Water also seems to be more telekinesis (Hydrokinesis), in the first series when Katara ran out of water (or they had to drink her waterbending water) she couldn’t do any water bending.

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