30 August 2006

Avatar/4N Initial Playtest Thread

Shreyas and I both came to GenCon with pretty character sheets but only vague ideas about how they supported the kind of play that we had in mind. This didn't bother us. We're both interested in designing game products that are actually the tools used, in real time, to create play, instead of having books and sheets simply be records of play information. So the tools came first, in this case, and then we decided to try and figure out what sort of play they led us too. (Kevin Allen Jr. was walking around at the time and asked what we were up to; that in turn led to the infamous and ongoing Reverse/Engineer design contest, but that's beside the point...).

The sheets we used for Avatar (what would become the Four Nations project) are posted here (PDF).

Hopefully Shreyas and Thomas will pitch in and help me retell how the session went. I still have all the character info and records from it, so I'm going to go ahead and post what I have:

Name: Toph
Nation: Earth Kingdom
Age: 12
Gender: Female
Major Personality Traits: Bored, Bitchy
Relationships: Hates Parents
Martial/Bending: "See" with Earthbending, Crush People With Very Small Rocks (added during play)
Major Possession: The Stick
Major Dharma: Escape Parents, Become Earthbending Master
Earth Path: Learn "Crush People with Rocks"
     - This Guy's an Idiot
     - My Way Works (Sorta)
     - Knocked Myself Out With a Rock
     - Crush People With Very Small Rocks (END)
Fire Path: Change "Hates Parents" to "Likes Parents"
     - I'm Not a Kid
     - My Dad Got Me Into This
Air Path: Pretend to Be Nice
     - I Can Hold My Tongue
     - Wait 'Til They're Not Looking
Water Path: Make a Friend

Name: Kusa
Nation: Water (North)
Age: 16
Gender: Male
Home: Northern Water Capitol
Major Personality Traits: Competative for No Reason
Relationships: Jealous of Katara
Martial/Bending: Waterbending Accidents
Major Possessions: Kayak
Major Dharma: Make Pakku Look Dumb
Water Path: Find New Teacher
     - I'm Outta Here
     - Caught in a Storm
     - Kayakwrecked
     - Try Again
Earth Path: Become a Pirate
     - Bosun Overboard!
     - Don't Waste Grog
Air Path: Make a Friend
     - Scrubbing with Kai
Fire Path: Take Charge of Life
     - I'm the Lookout Now

Thomas decided he wanted to play Toph, a major character from the show who hasn't gotten a lot of attention yet. She's a young blind girl who can "see" Daredevil-style by using her Earthbending powers to sense vibrations. She is known to have a bad relationship with her controlling and overprotective parents.

Shreyas decided to play a semi-new character. In one episode, Katara (a female Waterbender and one of the show's protagonists) beats the crap out of a bunch of young male Waterbending students, to show that girls can be just as good as boys... or even better. Shreyas named one of these guys Kusa and decided that he was pissed off at Pakku, the Waterbending instructor.

I should probably explain that "Major Dharma" are supposed to be long term goals.

Also, let me explain the basic idea of "Dharma Paths." Characters can have up to 4 different active Dharma Paths at each time, one for each element. And they basically record your progress as a character and enable you to change old traits or add new traits by completing a kind of "journey" as a character. You go through a series of events and they lead you to a new trait. But this trait CANNOT BE THE TRAIT YOU WANTED when you began the journey. It has to be at least a variation, but it's often something completely different. You may think you know where the journey's going to lead when you start, but life always surprises you.

Okay, so the characters didn't start off with all those steps filled out on their Paths. They didn't even start out with all those Paths. I think Thomas started with just his Earth and Fire paths determined, while Shreyas started with just Water (correct me if I'm wrong, guys).

One of the fabulous things was that Toph wanted to change "Hates Parents" to "Likes Parents," but because of the way Paths work, we knew she'd never actually be able to do it, which is so fitting for her character. Thomas chose that goal for her KNOWING THAT SHE WOULD FAIL, which was just delicious. We all were on the edge of our seats waiting to see what her misdirected attempt at learning to love her parents would lead her to.

Okay, there's me setting the stage. One of you guys wanna explain the Avatar Cycle dail and our thoughts about it? They kinda evolved over the course of play.


Blogger Shreyas said...

Okay, so how the Avatar Cycle dial works is this:

You have a little circle thingy on your sheet, something like Jon's post here, which tells you where you are in the Avatar cycle. This has a lot of in-setting meaning that's not important right now.

What is important is that it sets the pace and attitude of your Path interactions. We each started with our character token on the node corresponding to our element, Water for Kusa and Earth for Toph. We had also made initial Paths for these elements, before we started narrating scenes.

When you frame a scene, you frame it relevant to the Path associated with your current spot in the Avatar cycle. For me, this means that I framed a scene about how I was going to find a new teacher: Pakku tried to teach me ICE KATANA and just couldn't, and he flipped out and Kusa got very upset and stormed out of the training area, saying that he wasn't coming back, and paddling out in his kayak. That - the cold and stubborn attitude, the uplifted chin, pride leading to a fall - is the Water stress response. If I chose to act this negative response out to an extreme, I could have moved backward in the Avatar cycle, to Air, but I didn't think it was that intense. At this point we didn't have the cycle rules worked out quite right, so I stayed in Water and we did a couple more miniscenes in there, leading to Kusa getting onto a pirate ship. At some point we started circling around the cycle, moving from Water to Earth and so on. This is where the fun starts, seriously.

In short succession I filled out my paths, and by elemental association you can see what tone they set - the Earth Path is one of very practical issues and Earth personality traits, holding up under pressure, being strong, and so on. The Air Path is approached more humourously - Scrubbing with Kai involved toothbrushes and whispered comments about the bosun's manliness and so on. The Fire Path is one of extreme, intense actions; it takes guts to climb up the mast and tell the lookout, "Hey you're off duty." That job sucks.

1:08 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

One thing that I feel that we learned, but never really discussed, is that this game needs no GM.

We played the session with Jon GMing, but I think that, ultimately, this was unnecessary.

I think this may well be because many of the GM-functions just weren't used in our game. We didn't really need someone to provide fit opposition because fit opposition isn't what our play was about. We didn't need someone to run the world or to act as final arbitrator, we pretty much just did that collaboratively.

This was interesting to me because it's not about redistributing GM tasks, it's about not needing anyone to execute those tasks. At least I think that's what was going on.


6:36 PM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

Hm, you're right, I think.

9:04 PM  
Blogger John said...

This is awesome. I having nothing else to add at the moment.


7:52 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Walton said...

Another interesting thing was that the game was completely freeform. There was no resolution at all. "What happened" was determined solely by GM fiat and what the players thought would be really cool. We were totally cheating by playing with a group that we already had a fair rapport with, but, honestly, I kind think that should be a requirement for any game based on Avatar. It would be impossible to play with people you didn't like, because even the villians (Zuko, Admiral Zhao) are cute and lovable on the inside.

Also, I REALLY liked the way microscenes worked. No scene was longer than 5 minutes. The player framed a scene related to moving along their path, we negotiated an outcome (not a final outcome, but a step long the path) and then we moved on to the next player. Shreyas and Thomas' characters were never in the same scene, yet it clearly felt like they were part of the same Avatar episode.

I like microscenes as a sort of middle ground between framing scenes and framing shots (something that Shreyas and I fiddled with before). They go super fast, so you only get a tiny smudge of story each time, but they keep the action from focusing on a single character too much.

I'm not sure how this is going to work once we have multiple protags in the same scene, but I'm excited to find out.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Every time I think about this game session, I regret not trying to record it. Not because I think we could have heard much useful stuff with all the background noise, but because I wish I had a solid sense of real-time and play.

I'm pretty sure that Jon's right about the five minutes (tops) per mini-scene, and they all felt just about right. (Though eventually we'll probably want some solid mechanics for stringing multiple mini-scenes together for one character for cool climax-y stuff.)

But it also felt like it didn't take that long to play. I mean, sure we didn't really (quite) finish up our story, but it felt like all-told we played for an hour (with mechanics discussions and stuff taking up the rest of the time).

That's awesome. That's low investment. That's the sort of game I want to use to show people what I do: I can explain the rules in five minutes, we can be done in an hour. Then we go on and play something else (like Settlers). Then next game night (in two weeks, or whatever), we might come back to it because it was fun.

But I keep doubting myself. Did we really just play for an hour? Did we have all that fun, and feel satisfied with what happened, with so little time in play? I wish I knew for sure.


10:56 PM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

We really did, Thomas. We really did.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got a question... When was this Four Nations project imagined?

11:37 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Walton said...

You mean the Avatar game or Four Nations (they've since become separate things)?

I started working on the Avatar game on 2006 May 23. We started working on Four Nations, our Avatar inspired boardgame/rpg thing, on the way back from from GenCon last August.

11:43 AM  

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