Avatar Legends: A New Approach to Session Zero?

There’s a lot of buzz around Magpie Games’ PBTA Avatar Legends game – the usual stuff of people sharing their new kickstarter deliveries. It’s certainly a pretty game, but I managed to get session zero in with our regular Friday group the evening it arrived – and the session zero guidance is not only really interesting, but also easy to adapt to other games and systems.

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Avatar the what?

The game is an officially licensed RPG for the Avatar: The Last Airbender show, including Legend of Korra. If you’ve never heard of it before, they’re excellent shows, and although Avatar is aimed at kid, don’t let that put you off. It’s a fantasy-ish land where people from different lands can ‘bend’ elements to their advantage – so you have firebenders shooting gouts of flame, waterbenders skating around on sheets of ice, that sort of thing.

It’s heroic fantasy, and it suits PBTA well, as it’s as much about beliefs and principles as it is about cool fighting moves. In the game each playbook has a series of contrasting principles that can get shifted during the game (a lot like Mask’s stats) – so when The Icon’s Role principle goes up to +2, his Freedom drops to -2. Ever go more than +3/-3, and you suffer a crisis of confidence, probably leaving the scene, before it resets. There’s a funky combat system of stances and moves too, which I’ll write more about when I’ve seen it in action – it’s definitely second-gen PBTA with a bit of heft to the rules.

Session Zero

Before chargen, or even before players pick their playbooks, you make a few decisions. The first is to choose what Era you play in, and then what the campaign’s Scope is – is it set around a given area, or is it a picaresque game where you visit a new land every session. We went with the first era, Kyoshi, since there’s not much canon about it, and the players were keen for a narrow, but non-urban, scope – allowing recurring NPCs and locations to appear. So far, pretty standard session zero stuff.

You then pick your Group Focus – what you got together to do. Options range from “To Defeat [dangerous foe]” to “To Learn [idea, culture, training, history]” – we went with “To Protect…” and decided we wants to protect a village, since we’d thrown out some ideas about a bucolic, pastoral setting – a few of us in the groups have played fantasy city campaigns recently. Quickly, our group role becomes apparent, and we’ve got our village sketched out as well – Peony Blossom Falls, a village at a vital commercial crossroads that’s always the target of bandits.

I wasn’t too sure about this step initially – it felt like we were deciding from a blank slate – but the players had good ideas and some stuff just made sense immediately – we were unlikely to be picking “To deliver…” or “To rescue…” with a limited scope, and player ideas got built on by each other. One player realised it was very much like picking your Crew playbook in Blades in the Dark – it lets you decide what sort of stuff you’ll be doing – and gives the GM a big steer on what each session might look like.

The Inciting Incident

This is the bit that I’ve not seen before. As a group, you pick from a few options to decide the adventure that drove your PCs to adventure together. There are a few options for each of Act I, II, and III, which for me provided just enough of a framework to work it out. 

I added more structure and left it entirely to the players too – the first player picked the phrase (In our case for Act I “We did something fun, but drew the ire of [powerful figure] in the process”), the next player identified a specific from that (what the fun thing was), the next player who the powerful figure was, then on to Act II.

What did we end up with? Well, our heroes partied too hard in the waterfalls of Peony Blossom Village, drawing the ire of Fenfang the Magistrate before the Peony Blossom Festival. During the festival they stole a secret scroll of bending from Meng Shou, a wandering Fire Nation hero – without realising how valuable it was – but were rescued by Fenfang when he offered them a deal – defend the village for a year and a day, and their penance is served.

As a GM, this is brilliant. I’ve got just enough to see how the campaign will start – we talked about bandit gangs troubling the village, but they haven’t even appeared yet. What has appeared are two sort-of-antagonists who could be allies or enemies – Fenfang and Meng Shou – who are both tricky to deal with either socially or in combat. The first session almost writes itself from this prep!

Why It works

No hierarchy or player / GM split – I like that there aren’t really defined rolls for players and GMs in the procedures. You’re all just a group deciding what you’re going to do. I’d imagine that GM probably still has veto, but we didn’t really need it. It’s easy for the GM to set some parameters at the start (I’d picked the era, for instance) and then have players work within those boundaries.

No dice, not too fiddly – the process of the Inciting Incident doesn’t just plan your previous adventure, and give some idea of where the characters fit together – it also helps to plan the actual first session. With the consequences of their actions to work from, we can get into some drama immediately – which is often an issue with PBTA where you either jump into face-stabby blood opera or slow-burn around NPCs until somebody blinks.

Eras break the setting into manageable pieces – eras are a great idea to make a rich, fully detailed setting work at the table. There’s 63 pages of setting detail in the World of Avatar chapter – but I only really need to grasp about 12 of them, for the era we’re in. Each Era doesn’t just describe what’s happening and where nations are in their histories, but also what the key themes and stories you can tell in that era are – meaning you can grasp very quickly which one takes your fancy.

In summary, I’m really pleased with this approach, and I think it’s easily ported to any system or setting to add detail to a session zero and set your campaign in motion. I’ll be considering it with other games in the future. What approaches have you seen for session zeroes? Let me know in the comments.