Archive for the ‘Avatar’ Category

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Skyflower

October 23, 2007

being a hack of the avatar game

With my arms around her I could feel her tense up. The wind had shifted and evening was approaching. Her golden mask was missing from the sky, but just as though she were there, the clouds were painting themselves in saffrons and purples. The light soaked into her skin, warmed it. She was suddenly too hot to hold. “Lover, it is time I go.” Her breath singed my arms. “I must climb the sky so that the mouth of the mountains can close on me, chew me up, and spit me out.”

She said it as a misbehaving child might say, “I must go home so my father can beat me,” with fear and anger, but also with a kind of resignation, helplessness stretched thin over the span of years.

I watched the sun climb to her doom, her naked feet still stained with grass, her shoulders scalloped with teethmarks.

Someday I will grind those mountains down. In all of creation, I am the only one who may bite her. I know when to stop.

Skyflower is a mini-game about a world that can’t change itself, and the hero’s quest to change it.

Choosing Primary Characters :: Culture & Geography

Most of what Jon said in the avatar game is true here. The crucial exception is that Skyflower doesn’t come with a setting, out of the box, and I can’t be arsed to make you one, but I can make it so you can make one. The one constant is that the gods of the world are, at least pretty often, enfleshed and personal. They take on physical forms and form relationships with individuals and peoples. They can be multifaceted—where one people see the sun goddess as a young, fierce woman riding a chrysanthemum horse, another may see a mother pouring buttery light out of a clay jar, and another might see a sooty three-legged bird that builds its nest in the uttermost east. All these visions are true. Or, they can be very specific and local—the god of this forest, this tree, the god that forged this sword. Universally, gods are embodiments of physical aspects of the world: night, winter, a crow, are all things that may have gods. Liberty, equality, and fraternity aren’t.

Each character comes from a different culture, either because of geographic separation, or because of social stratification; two characters may be from the selfsame city and speak the same language, but if one is a destitute priest and the other is a scholar-princess, they are effectively from different spheres.

As a group, answer these questions about the characters, making sure that no two answers are alike.

How do the character’s people relate to the gods?
How do they live; what god is most important to their livelihood?
What place is most important to them?
What place do they find utterly distant and alien?
What is the character’s social sphere, her people?
What is expected of him when he grows up?
How does she baffle those expectations?
What makes him well-suited for them?

With the first four questions, you can scrawl a map. Don’t fling all the distant, alien places to the corners and edges; instead, checker them with the hearts of nations, and build barriers and threats that keep them apart—deserts, mountains, bandits, superstitions, old feuds or unaffordable tools, whatever strikes your fancy. None of these barriers are impassable, merely imposing. In each nation’s most-important-place, set down a figure representing their most important god.

There are a lot of different ways you can answer that question about the relationship with gods, and how you do will colour your game significantly—are the people worshipful of the gods, or do they treat them as equals, or have they subjugated them? Is there one god they treat differently? Maybe they are familiar or alien, loved or feared or simply accepted. They are never unimportant. And, too, this is a kind of romantic game, so don’t get bogged down in extremes of realistic cultural complexity; suppose we are dealing with small populations that are close-knit and not especially diverse, and describe their cultures in broad, bold strokes.

When you identify a god for a nation, you don’t have to describe it exhaustively or in depth; every culture knows about most of the major gods of the world, and they see them in different and often seemingly incompatible ways. You can leave these different viewpoints unexplored until you need to use them in the game, or you can prepare them beforehand. Developing in play has a swiftness and organic quality that I find appealing, but the other way is good too; it gives you time and distance with which to manipulate imagery more deliberately.

The second four questions are there to get you thinking about who the character is. Remember that you can make multiple characters of the same people, as long as their social spheres differ. Think about what this means for their view of the gods! They will relate to them very differently.

Describing Primary Characters

Begin by describing each character’s relationship with the god you feel is most important to that character. This doesn’t have to be the god of her people. This particular relationship is personal and specific; character and god can recognize each other and their meetings evoke strong feelings in each other. Typically, characters and gods relate as lovers, adversaries, or family members. Think about what it means for a character to be the mother of a god, or for a god to be a character’s grandfather.

Next, for each relationship, describe one that the god has with another god, which has a direct, problematic impact on the first relationship. For instance, one character might be in love with the sun, but he is the husband of the jealous sea. Finally, describe any relationships the characters have between others or with nations. Connect each god to at least one nation. Make a diagram showing how everyone is connected, labelling each connection with a brief description of the relationship involved. Use analogies if it helps! It’s better to describe a god as “father” than “emotionally disconnected authority/creator figure.” The network of relationships between humans, nations, and gods that you draw in this step will become the communal chakra that the characters traverse. Be aware that you can create a discontinuous network—one where there is no path between one group of nodes and another—by following these instructions. That’s a tool for you—you can use it to tell parallel stories that connect later on when you alter the chakra—but you should always build a continuous diagram unless you have a specific reason not to.

Great Dharma

The character’s first great dharma is involved with these relationships; he needs to sort them out.

Lesser Dharma

Characters may have lesser dharmas that involve any character, nation, or god. In a scene about such an entity, only one character present needs to have a relevant dharma. The others may form their own agendas and the associated dharmas if they wish, or they can just come along for the ride.

Moving on the Map

Each character’s pawn starts on the node that corresponds to himself. When he moves to a node, he has a scene about the dharma he has related to that node; if he has none, then there is an opportunity to establish a new dharma, or enjoy an interlude, in which the character learns or teaches something human about the subject. It’s possible to have dharmas for any node, including the character’s own; these might be sort of self-involved, though.

The characters in Skyflower are exaggeratedly empathetic; the relationships that connect the nodes are the forces that motivate them to action, forming the transitions between scenes. In this game, selecting which way to traverse the chakra is more about choice than judgement. So, in a scene you need to do two things: accomplish something, and indicate the emotional connection that leads to the next scene. You don’t need to marry this shift to an action made by the active character; a scene shift can also be motivated by external events, or, from an appropriate character’s point of view, pivot around something that symbolically evokes a new subject, such as fetching water for a scene about a river god, or fleeing from some place shifting into a scene about another fugitive.

Changing the Map

You can change the relationships that connect nodes; to change relationships between humans (or create one; you can never uncreate a relationship) or nations requires nothing more than enacting a lesser dharma, while changing a relationship that involves a god calls for a great dharma. Nations don’t directly have relationships with one another; their interactions are mediated by characters or gods.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are fearsomely mobile. You may encounter them anywhere in the chakra, sitting on a node. Each one has exactly one relationship that is important to them, and you can transition scenes along this connection as well as whatever connections are on your node, but if you take their path they will follow you.

Sometimes a god will split off one of its faces and create a secondary character. These particular secondary characters always have a connection to a human.

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Playtest Fallout, Part 2

June 18, 2007

More things that need to change after the latest Avatar playtest.

Issue C

We didn’t use the new Secondary Character (NPC) rules at all. It was the first session and there were 6 Primary Characters, but I think having no Secondary Chars was a mistake. There are still fire nation soldiers and Gran-Gran and the children in the first few Avatar episodes. No NPC should be left without a purpose, since that’s super uninteresting.

I need to figure out a way for NPCs to be assigned to the players and have their Dharma Paths recorded by the player responsible for them. That should be easy enough.

Issue D

From playing with people I’m really familiar with and those who are used to playing Story Games, I was expecting there to be a fair bit of table talk about what should happen or what scene we should run next or what a given character should do. But that didn’t really happen. Honestly, I think that was the element most missing from the playtest. Everyone was so quiet! I’m not sure how to encourage people to speak up more and get really involved in the story, even when they are not directly called to participate in the scene through a character.

Issue E

I need episode framing guidelines to help groups figure out how to structure a session of play and what kinds of scenes to have in what order. Primetime Adventures handles this through offering pages and pages of suggestions of how television series’ work, but most of that is not actually implemented in the rules, so it relies on the players to remember all of that and play in a way that feels like a TV show. I’d like to have some firmer guidelines in place about what the Intro Scene, Middle Scenes, Fight/Chase Scenes, and Wrapup Scenes are like. There will be tons of flexibility, because every episode is different, but I think some real structure would be helpful, to ensure that a mixture of characters and situations are featured. I also think it’s important to cut scenes or conflicts in the middle and then come back to them, switching first to other scenes or even having “commercial breaks.”

Issue F

Fight/conflict scenes were somewhat problematic. We added a turn-based shot-framing thing on the fly, which seemed to work okay, but isn’t really a permanent solution.

What I need to make clear is that fights in Avatar are NOT competitive. In a fight, it is the task of the players whose characters are fighting to make the fight as interesting as possible for themselves and the rest of the group. You are not playing to win. If you do that, it will be a disaster. It’s more like writing a fight scene in fanfic.

Dev made the good point that the winner/loser of fights is determined by “who needs to learn a lesson.” In the Kitara vs. Pakku fight, for example, Kitara has to do well enough to make Pakku say, “You really are an excellent Waterbender,” but Kitara clearly can’t win, since respecting elders and seniority is a common Avatar trope. But Pakku clearly can’t get away with his sexism either, so, at the end of the fight, after Kitara loses, we see that Pakku is really the ultimate loser, since his upholding of sexist traditions cost him the love of his life.

THAT is an Avatar fight.

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Playtest Fallout, Part 1

June 13, 2007

Yay, I got Shreyas to post, which means I can follow up with some of the concerns I have with the Avatar game, thanks to the recent playtest.

Issue A

I need a list of names and cultural notes for playing members of each nation. It may not be obvious to everyone that Water Tribe = Inuit/Ainu, Earth Kingdom = China/Korea, Fire Nation = Japan, and Air Nomads = Tibet/Mongolia. And picking names that sound, for example, like Water Tribe names can be kinda hard. Better to do the Polaris thing and have a list.

Also, several of the players game their characters surnames, even though no one in Avatar has a surname. That’s the kind of thing that just needs mentioning, unless people overlook it.

Issue B

Dharma Paths need to be picked before play begins, not as play goes on. There should probably be a separate Episode Sheet that each player uses to record their paths, NPCs, and other stuff related to that session of play.

How do you pick appropriate paths before you ever really know what the episode is about? Perhaps paths, which are already tied to elements, should be related to the type of trait that is also associated with that element. So, a Water Path would be related to changing an existing Virtue.

Perhaps, also, paths are always an attempt to change an existing trait and, if they create a new trait instead, it’s always unintentional. You could decide what the new trait is and, if it’s incompatible with your old trait, it replaces it. If they’re not incompatible, you keep both.

Finally, I think the starting traits (and, therefore, subsequent paths) need to represent dissatisfaction with the Status Quo. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and you’re out to change it. Sokka needs to prove his worth as a warrior and protect the village. Kitara needs to learn Waterbending and earn Sokka’s respect for her powers. Etc.

This could carry over nicely to the Exalted hack, once I get back to it, where traits represent past crimes that must be atoned for. Traits need to call for action; they need to be problems, not passive descriptive characteristics.

Next time, Issues C & D.

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Avatar Playtest 3

June 11, 2007

We ran the third ever playtest session of the Avatar game at SGBoston this week. The first playtest was GenCon 2006, the second was Shreyas’ IRC thing a month or two ago. So the game has changed a lot since we played it last.

Overall, it was awesome, especially considering that only two of our six players were really fans of the show. The characters were:

  • Tanaya: 18yo, Female, Fire Nation, Senior Geisha
    – Virtue: Snob
    – Strength: Azana’s Hairpins (Stilettos)
    – Intensity: Firebending
    – Intensity: Kungfu (Fan)
    – Unity: Organization of the Cherry Blossoms
  • Kulug Valiun: 16yo, Male, Water Tribe, Wandering Drunken Boxer
    – Virtue: Rush (?)
    – Strength: Divine Gourd
    – Unity: The Resistance
    – Intensity: Drunken Boxing
    – Intensity: Freeze Water
  • Rotga Hau: 28yo, Male, Water Trbe, Resistance Leader
    – Virtue: Loner
    – Strength: Short-Sighted
    – Strength: Katana
    – Unity: Water Mafia
    – Intensity: Tai Chi Master
    – Intensity: Katana Mastery
  • Sen: 14yo, Male, Earth Kingdom, Merchant’s Son
    – Virtue: Earth Nation 4 Life!
    – Strength: Father’s Gold Coins
    – Strength: Youthful Endurance
    – Intensity: Coin-Bending
    – Unity: Smoldering Coal Garrison
  • Duke Zaru: 14yo, Male, Fire Nation, Upstart Princeling
    – Virtue: I Still Have to Prove Myself
    – Strength: Flamethrower
    – Unity: War Rhino Named Ringo
  • Colonel _____: 19yo, Male, Fire Nation, Secret Police Chief

Now, the playtest revealed a bunch of issues too, but I don’t want to change things too fast or too radically, because this wasn’t really my target audience (not a lot of Avatar background in the group) and one session is not necessarily representative of the campaign-based play that I intended the game for.

Still, over the next week, I hope to draft out some revisions and explain what triggered them, based on examples from actual play. Hopefully Shreyas will forgive me for missing a few days in between.

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Secondary Character Sheet

June 4, 2007

avatar-new2.jpg

Trying to polish up the playtest draft of Avatar. These are the character sheets that you use for secondary characters, as per the rules Annie Rush and I developed, which are now in the most recent draft (even though this sheet is not).

Secondary characters have the same element as the nation they are from.

You have to draw a picture of them in the box at the top; it’s required.

The lines at the bottom are for their initial Dharma Path and the subsequent steps along that path.

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Attention Deficit Karma

May 24, 2007

Avatar, like many shows aimed at young people, continually reinforces some types of behaviors and discourages others.

When characters in the show act petty or stubborn or selfish or in other ways that the writers of the show don’t approve of, bad things happen to them. It generally doesn’t take very long for these bad things to happen.

For example, in Tales of Ba Sing Se, Sokka is drooling over the beautiful girls through the window of the poetry school. The next thing that happens is an ostrich-horse kicks him through the window, where he falls flat on his face in front of the whole class.

This narrative principle is, in effect, Attention Deficit Karma. Good actions are instantly rewarding and bad actions are quickly punished.

I’m not sure how to (of even if I should) implement this principle in the Avatar game, but it’s interesting to think about and something to keep in mind when structuring scenes.

As a side note, The Simpsons has a similar thing going on, where, when a character says “it’s not like X is going to happen,” X instantly happens, no matter how random and impossible that is.

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Antagonism in Avatar

May 23, 2007

Shreyas said we can write multiple posts today, because we’re still playing catch up from the past few days, when his computer didn’t work and I was just in a bad mental state.

I want to explain the conversation we just had about antagonism in the Avatar game and how to create secondary characters that push the buttons of the protagonists.

When creating secondary characters in the Avatar game, players should try to make the characters’ core dharma paths (which are basically all secondary characters are) the inverse of — or more extreme versions of — protagonists’ 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.