Avatar Legends Quickstart Review

Having celebrated its fifteenth anniversary this year, the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender has demonstrated surprising longevity. Especially as it’s spinoff, The Legend of Korra, didn’t even air the second half of its final season. (It was moved online.) In addition to live action remakes, spin-offs, comics, and novels Magpie Games is releasing a roleplaying game using the Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset: Avatar Legends. The Kickstarter for the book has pulled in $6 million to date, and there’s still a couple weeks left at the time of this writing. 

And there’s a Quickstart you can sign up for to preview the game. Which is the focus of this review.

What It Is

The Quickstart is a single PDF of 55 pages with 7 pregenerated characters, loose character creation rules, and a short adventure. It previews the rules, with the final product having more character options. The PDF is fairly bare bones, with no bookmarks, table of contents, index, or hyperlinks. It has full colour artwork that looks like production stills from the show. No artist is credited with the credits reading “all art courtesy of Viacom.” (This might make the book fairly affordable for Magpie, if they don’t have to pay artists, as art is one of the most expensive parts of making an RPG book.)

As mentioned, the Quickstart is story focused and “Powered by the Apocalypse”, the ruleset created for the Apocalypse World game. It uses 2d6 (with d6 being the only die) with a 7+ being a soft success. A “yes, and…” or “yes, but…” Meanwhile, a 10+ is a full success, where’s no penalty or even a bonus.This means you have a 58% chance of success that goes up to 72.23 with a +1 which feels okay. Even odds seem good on paper, but in play failing that often isn’t fun. However, it is only a 16.67% of a full success where there’s no complication (or 27.78% with a +1). This does mean three quarters of the times you roll, something not good might happen. 

There are four Stats in the game: Creativity, Focus, Harmony, and Passion. These have a bonus ranging from -1 to +2 in the Quickstart, but I imagine you might be able to raise and lower some even more in the full rules.

There are no “classes” in the game, and instead there are playbooks: story focused roles with unique abilities. (Y’know, like classes…) There are six playbooks in the quickplay and ten listed in the main book with more being unlocked through stretch goals. Playbooks have names such as Guardian, Hammer, Icon, Idealist, Pillar, Prodigy, and Successor. Each has their own two opposing principles locked in, which I don’t particularly like but would be a super easy house rule to customize.

The quickstart also details the world and focuses on five time periods where the game can be set: Kyoshi’s Era, Roku’s Era, the 100 Years War, Aang’s Era, and Korra’s Era. Or the eras of the main shows plus the eras of the previous two Avatars.

The Good

The Quickstart and system really focuses on roleplaying and emphasises that you must describe your character’s action rather than just declare the rules being used. This is a story and imagination game that really wants you to put yourself in the shoes of your character. 

When you create a party, the group picks a focus. This is your main quest, giving the party a reason to be together. This is great and I wish more RPGs would emphasize this rather than just assuming the disparate player characters will work together or that every player will know to make a party member that works well in the group.

One of the main mechanics is “Balance”, which ties into your character’s two principals as determined by your playbook. This is both mechanically interesting and a neat roleplaying element. Characters have two opposing philosophical components—such as Care vs. Force or Tradition vs. Progress—and each has a path of numerical bonus and penalties. As you move towards Forgiveness and gain bonuses with that principal you move away from Action and have penalties to act according to that principal. This is a really neat way to reflect the conflicting emotions and goals of characters in the world as well as the desire to “bring balance to the world” and “center yourself.” While also giving players a meaty roleplaying hook. 

It’s a nifty little mechanic, that also means as an encounter progresses you get both stronger and weaker as you become more unbalanced, as you can use the numerical bonus from your principal rather than one of your Stats. You’re at your most dangerous and badass with a +3 when you’re also the closest to being taken out of the fight being losing your balance altogether. The risk/reward aspect to moving further off center is really appealing. 

It’s also the easy way to defeat enemies: when someone moves too far down their path they “lose their balance” and are effectively removed from combat. And because making someone lose their balance takes four or five successful moves, it is often much faster than wearing down their fatigue.

Combat is freeform, and you are given complete freedom to describe your actions based on your character’s fighting style. The difference between using waterbending to make whips, an earthbender using metal cords, or a nonbender using a physical leather whip is entirely cosmetic. (There’s not even really rules for “whip.”) And because none of the four statistics are directly related to physical skill, you can be a frail diplomat or nerdy scholar and still contribute equally to battle, using your Focus to persuade enemies to stand down. 

The Bad

I dislike limiting the eras you can play to the five established eras. Not when you could play Kuruk, the Water Tribe Avatar, or Yangchen, who was the previous air nomad Avatar. Or the era of an invented Avatar, such as the second or third Avatar. It’d be awesome to start a game far in the past when Avatars were not well known, and not reveal who the Avatar is until a few sessions and present it as this weird thing where somehow this person can bend multiple elements and no one is sure why. Or this person is hearing voices and think they’re crazy until they discover it is Wan the first Avatar. Heck, it would have been interesting to play an alternate Airbender that was chosen instead of Aang to show how they might have reacted differently at the start of the 100 Years War, fleeing and trying to train while escaping the initial onslaught of the war.

Scope is weird. The game provides four “scopes” for you to describe how broad the focus of your campaign will be. If it’s a narrowly focused or broad and world spanning. Four is unnecessary and tying it to the elements feels like unnecessary symmetry. And you could argue Air Nomad scope is larger than Ba Sing Se. It’s just a little awkward.

The freeform combat is a huge feature/bug. It allows the players to create their own waterbending or earthbending techniques, but also requires people to think of them rather than pull from a list, which might be challenging for everyone who isn’t familiar with the show or the limits imposed. And it’s often too easy for people to get wacky, or think of a technique that narratively should be more effective than just the one fatigue it might inflict. It also makes things feel samey: the earthbender that takes sand and shapes it into obsidian (glass bending) and creates darts and needles is just as effective and mechanically identical as the player that says “I hit them with a rock. Advance and attack with strike technique.” There’s not even an Inspiration or Story Point system for the GM to use to reward exceptional roleplaying and description.

And because the game is so rules light, there’s practically no rules for exploration based encounters. There’s moves for social encounters, but for environmental or exploration encounters you can either Rely on Your Skills and Training or Push Your Luck. You’re pretty much doing the same thing all the time (determined by the higher of your two stats) and if you don’t have a decent bonus to Focus or Passion you’re out of luck. 

Like many “rules lite” story games, there’s paradoxically a lot of jargon. The book says things like “take +1 forward” versus “take +1 ongoing” rather than just saying “you gain +1 to your next roll.” It saves something 10 characters at the expense of simplicity and plain language. It’s needless and a barrier to comprehension and play. 

As mentioned, you can defeat enemies by wearing down their fatigue or knocking them off balance. But it always seems better to knock them off balance than beat them down. This is neat as it encourages you to engage with the philosophy of your opponent and argue against them, defeating them with words, but subtly encourages you not to perform the dramatic martial arts fights the series is known for. And if everyone isn’t focusing fire on affecting either balance or fatigue it just gets harder. It also doesn’t reflect fanatics like Azula or Zaheer who can’t be influenced or swayed. 

The Ugly

This is not a simple or intuitive game. I’ve read the Quickstart several times, and each time I find some aspect I had missed or misinterpreted. Like many games, it does need to be played to be appreciated, but finding time to play isn’t always easy and devoting a rare evening of gaming to a very different game is a high price. Especially one like this where you might need two or three sessions to really grok the subtleties of play.  

I’m sure the learning curve is much lower for people who have played Powered by the Apocalypse games before, but I don’t know what percentage of the 50,000 backers and other people who will pick-up the game in stories will know that ruleset. 

The GM advice in running the game recommends you target loved ones if the adventure gets stuck. I really dislike this advice, as it leads to players avoiding having loved ones who only end up being used as plot hooks and as motivation when they dare to veer off the plot. It’s mentioned a little too casually for my liking, 

The map accompanying the adventure is a joke. I hope this is not a sign of what art in the book not supplied by Viacom will look like…

It doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to play the Avatar. They’re not included in the Quickstart and are described as legendary figures in the full rules. NPC characters. And the rules imply no character can bend more than one element. So… it’s an Avatar game where the Avatar is a GM PC. That’s just bad. There’s no shortage of other roleplaying games where one player is playing an exceptional character (like Cubical 7’s Doctor Who roleplaying game) but a method is found to balance that character against the others. 

There’s a typo in character pregens. Aniki has a +1 to creativity instead of a -1, which is a huge oversight. Mistakes like that always wave a big red flag for me. Tyops happne but in a character sheet this error feels more egregious and raises concerns. If you can’t trust the numbers on the sheet, what can you trust? 

The Moment of Balance mechanic feels like an “I win button.” I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t just immediately use theirs at the start of each encounter, especially as there doesn’t seem to be a limit. (Which makes the exclusion of the Avatar even more weird, as the Avatar State is their Moment of Balance.)

Characters seem exceptionally squishy. Everyone has 5 fatigue, but someone like Wenli the hammer can burn three of those to use Overwhelm. If they roll a 10 on attack, they’ll burn through all of their fatigue in a single turn. Then they need to move onto Conditions, which adds this weird element where everyone who is beaten up and near unconscious is Angry and Afraid and Guilty and Insecure all at the same time.

The rules say you can clear 3 fatigue by resting overnight, or more in better locations. Or 5 after a week of resting anywhere. Which is an odd statement when two nights sleeping outside on rocks would heal six. Not that you’ll need to as you can just use the Comfort & Support task to fully heal between fights. Or why it is even necessary to make four or five Harmony rolls to Comfort & Support as needless busywork when you could just have fatigue heal after 5 minutes.

The Awesome

There are tips on naming your character, with suggestions based on their heritage, so there are typical Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation names. 

I rather like the distinction between Conditions and Statuses, with the latter being what I would normally call conditions. Conditions are these neat small penalties to certain Moves you can check in place of taking damage (or to use certain moves). Because they’re a penalty to certain actions, it encourages you not to act in certain ways, which fits the associated emotion. The mechanics incentivize both the roleplaying and the actions the character takes. And removing a condition can be done by performing an in-character action. 

Final Thoughts

This is a hard product and game to recommend. The world is exciting and cool and the actual game encourages a nice story focused experience that encourages roleplaying and shared narrative. But the rules themselves feel unintuitive, as if deliberately designed to be as un-D&D as possible. Which is fine for games for people who dislike Dungeons & Dragons, and good for indie games that want to set themselves apart from the mainstream, but is an awkward choice for general audiences and an RPG that is currently the most successful tabletop RPG ever on Kickstarter (beating Strongholds & Streaming by Matt Coville which only raised $2.1 million; heck, even Reaper Bones 1 only raised $3.4 million). 

It’s the kind of game where you really need two or three sessions to really get a handle on the game and start playing it efficiently. Which is good for a dense game where you want to play an extended campaign, but is awkward for a game that might work best as a one-shot or as a short mini-campaign between longer games with a preferred system. I can’t think of many people who will want to make Avatar Legends their primary game of choice. 

At first it seems like a good all-ages RPG since you can diplomacize rather than use violence, and can’t make a bad character. Where you’re encouraged to roleplay and be imaginative while also talking out problems with bad guys that reveal their motives. Especially as getting started is fairly quick and easy, with few choices that slow down play. But I’m uncertain how easy it will be for young kids to retain the jargon as well as learn the lengthy names of Moves and assorted options rather than a simpler action resolution mechanic.

It’s also an Avatar game where the Avatar doesn’t play a key role in the story, which is a very curious decision. It’s like making a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game where no one can be the Slayer, a Star Wars game where you can’t play a Jedi, or a Star Trek game where the GM always runs the captain.

But with a skilled GM who is familiar with the system (perhaps from watching a few streamed games) and can take the player’s described actions and assign moves behind the scenes, this game should still be able to run fairly smoothly.

Probably.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income—which is necessary to buy RPG products—is entirely dependent on my PDF sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website. Including Who’s Doomed, a book of 5e stat blocks of darklords for the classic version of the Ravenloft campaign setting. Which is a huge passion product but also really handy for anyone who wants actual darklord statistics. If it continues to sell, I might add some of the new darklords to the product. There’s also the companion product Allies Against the Night, which takes classic Ravenloft heroes and makes them into sidekicks (based on the rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).

Others include the Blood Hunter Expanded, my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, and a book of Variant Rules. Phew.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic! The art of which can also be put on cloth masks.