Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest martial arts fantasy shows in recent memory. Not only was it one of Nickelodeon's greatest success stories that captured the attention of millions of children, it was a sharply written story in an imaginative world full of element-controlling martial arts, political intrigue, and East Asian philosophy. It was so popular it got a polarizing sequel series, The Legend of Korra, as well as a notoriously terrible live-action film adaptation by M. Night Shyamalan.
But the core of Avatar: The Last Airbender is still going strong. In addition to the characters showing up in everything from comic books to Smite DLC, there was an announcement of a brand new animation studio headed by the series' creators made with the express purpose of telling additional stories in the world, including animated films and spin-offs. But this series' reach cannot just stay contained to film and television: it is also getting it's very first official tabletop RPG adaptation courtesy of Magpie Games.
This is a daunting challenge no matter how you look at it. Avatar was highly influential, the very idea of a bender was so popular that Dungeons and Dragons' fifth edition made it a Monk subclass (Way of the Four Elements, look it up) for example, and tabletop RPGs bring their own unique challenges and hurdles when it comes to adaptation. Sometimes adapting an existing intellectual property works out effortlessly like Alien: The RPG, other times a focus on authenticity of the license leads to a mediocre or undercooked core like Dishonored.
Thankfully I was able to ask some of these burning questions at the creators themselves. The creative voices on Avatar: The RPG are Marissa Kelly, who was the lead developer on Bluebeard's Bride, an RPG adaptation of the French folk tale, and Mark Diaz Truman. Both are tried and true developers of tabletop RPGs whose credits stretch as far as consultation on the second edition of 7th Sea, and being founding members of the Indie Game Developer Network.
It is because of this experience that Truman and Kelly understand the importance of a seasoned and experienced team. Kelly stated, “That’s one of the reasons we’re really excited about all our contributing designers for the project. AtLA and TLoK are wonderful settings, and we’re so excited to get Asian-American designers like James Mendez Hodes and Clio Yun-Su Davis involved really early with the game’s design.” It takes a lot of talent to make an RPG work, and it's great to see this group understand the importance of that.
It also helps that both Kelly and Truman are big fans of the show itself. When asked about their favorite characters or stories, they were more than happy to share.
Truman stated, “I think two of my favorite characters from the series are the old men! I love Iroh and Tenzin, both because they are wise and moving characters, but also because they provide such an interesting set of challenges for the younger characters. As a GM, I’m really excited about filling the world my players engage with both intense villains (Azula!) and wise elders like Tenzin and Iroh.”
Kelly's heart meanwhile was elsewhere. “The most important character is, of course, Momo, but Katara’s dedication and determination are an impressive force throughout AtLA. I love that they don’t portray her as a flawless heroine—instead her desires sometimes come into conflict with the mission to save the world. Katara manages to be a grounded character with a head full of hopes and dreams, and I admire that balance.” Considering how much Katara grows as a character in the show and the challenges she overcomes like leading a prison riot, confronting the moral quandries of bloodbending, all while maintaining a compassionate demeanor, it is no surprise that she resonates so profoundly.
But love for the material only goes so far. I asked Kelly and Truman what was the most important thing to get right when it came to making Avatar: The RPG. Do you focus on an in-depth combat system that might overshadow the more empathetic themes of the story? Alternatively, do you focus more on player agency and shortchange the potential for action setpieces? The answer was quite elegant: the game would run on the tabletop RPG engine "Powered by the Apocalypse." Kelly explained that in many respects, both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are coming-of-age stories. Big and bold adventures full of magic as well as problems that can't just be beaten down with kicks and punches. The focus should be on that sense of scale and the desire for players to make the world a better place despite such daunting situations.
Truman illustrated a prime example of the system in context. “The best part about using the Powered by the Apocalypse engine is that we can design rules around bending that can invoke the show’s sense of wonder and power without needing to rely on long lists of feats and powers. Rather than merely describe ways in which players can attack monsters, we can talk about the costs and consequences of reshaping the environment (Earth), healing other characters (Water), or even channeling primal forces and bending energy!” It's the key difference between complicated and complex, and for new players who may be introduced to the hobby of tabletop RPGs through this game, Truman even states that this is a game parents can easily play with their kids.
As for the potential to tell more intriguing stories in the world of Avatar, Truman mentioned several tantalizing details. The core rulebook will cover the five different eras alluded to in the series, not just the War with the Fire Nation or the industrial boom of Republic City. Fans of the setting's deep lore will have plenty to sink their teeth into here. Truman even mentioned that there were plans for additional sourcebooks focused on exploring Republic City, and making journeys into the mystical Spirit World.
As much as I wanted to press both Kelly and Truman for more details, for multiple reasons they had to remain silent. Avatar: The RPG is still in development and is a high-profile intellectual property after all. But it was during my time exchanging words with the people in charge, I became genuinely excited and interested in how they will help players bring their very own adventures in this world to life. Only time will tell if they hit the mark.