As a game about martial artist heroes, action scenes—especially those that involve fights of some kind—are a key component of the narrative of Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game (AL). Its unique combat system can present unique challenges for first time GMs, and even to those who already are familiar with the PbtA design theory! So let's dive in with five tips on how to run great combat.
Tip #1: Don't Forget About the Window in Between Combat Exchanges!
You already know that combat in AL is structured in exchanges. These exchanges are highly structured, with combatants choosing their approaches first, then resolving in a specific order—Defend & Maneuver first, then Advance & Attack, and finally Evade & Observe—and with the PCs going first and the NPCs going after. So far, pretty similar to combat in most RPGs, right?
Well, one of the main differentiators between Avatar Legends and other RPGs regarding combat is that in AL there’s the distinct possibility to do something in between combat exchanges other than fighting. In this window PCs can trigger other moves, such as the basic moves or playbook moves, that usually aren’t available during an exchange. Maybe The Bold wants to assess the situation to provide guidance to their fellow companions? Or The Prodigy wants to challenge an opponent? Or perhaps The Successor wants to reason with the villain, thus triggering a move like persuade or even guide and comfort?
All of these in-between-exchanges’ moves not only fit the Avatar Legends fiction perfectly, but helps you to avoid the often tedious and repetitive nature of combat in other RPGs. Especially in their first few combat exchanges, don’t forget to remind your players about this window and offer going into another exchange right away only if it fits the fiction and they decide not to do something else in between exchanges.
Tip #2: Combats Should Be Dynamic Affairs
Another death knell to fun and engaging combats in games is when they’re static. You’re fighting the same bunch of goons for what seems like an eternity, in the same space and with no major, noticeable changes throughout the fight.
To counter this, don’t be afraid to shake things up a bit every once in a while. The villain escapes and now the PCs must decide how to best use their turns during the following combat exchanges: do they keep on fighting the villain’s goons or do they go after the villain (by using a basic technique such as Seize the Position to catch up with them, Smash, or even Bolster or Hinder to impede their escape)? This can create an extremely dynamic and fun experience for everybody at the table, as there’s now a new layer to the combat.
As yet another example of the same philosophy at play: have multiple combats running in parallel. Use one exchange order—i.e. the same approach resolves for all combats at the same time—and, in this way, you can have some characters in one place—e.g. defending a village—while others are out there fighting the invaders. This makes it possible to present layered and interesting situations without overwhelming the players (or yourself).
Tip #3: There Are Many Types of Combat
One of the most important rules in Avatar Legends is that not every confrontation should end up in a combat. An addendum I would add is that, even when a combat happens, not all combats have to be the same.
Some combats will be dramatic fights against monologuing villains, yes, but you can also have short engagements against goons that help to boost the PCs morale (and/or to give new players some low-stakes combats to learn the system); duels resolved “to the first blow” (whoever inflicts the first condition); and even situations in which fighting is a form of presentation/getting to know each other through non-verbal means.
All of these—and the many more you can probably think of/come up with—will allow you to insert vital action scenes in the middle of otherwise action-less situations.
In this sense, remember that Avatar Legends is, first and foremost, a game about martial artist heroes. The “martial artist” part is a key component of its original fiction—and most probably the expectations of all players at the table!
Tip #4: Combats Shouldn't Be (Only) About Punching People Unconscious
In my experience, inflicting fatigue and conditions until an opponent can't take it anymore should be only one of many options available in a combat. Most opponents should have other avenues to be defeated, such as debilitating them to the point of losing their control (marking one specific condition, for example) or the victory conditions of the fight itself should be such that PCs can win without having to spend 10 exchanges hitting someone over and over again. This can often be achieved by setting up scenarios in which the combat is about more than “fighting to the death”, such as stopping a ritual, releasing a prisoner, or hold a certain position until another event occurs.
Plus, most of the time it's mechanically more efficient to defeat opponents by challenging their beliefs, especially through the "Test Balance" basic technique—although that makes them more dangerous, as they get additional techniques each exchange when their balance track moves.
Tip #5: “What Does That Look Like in the Fiction?”
Finally, techniques and combinations are fun and all, but never forget that combat is just another part of the overall narrative of an Avatar Legends game. As such, I often like to refer other players—and myself—back to that narrative with a simple question: “What does that look like in the fiction?”
Remember to describe what each technique and move looks like in that narrative moment. Yes, you Strike at someone, but what does that look like? Do you use a fire kick, an ice dagger, or a blast of wind? This may be very dependent on your specific training but, even then, you can choose to use new descriptions as your character grows and changes or even add variations to your description depending on the current fictional situation. This focus on the narrative will enhance your experience of using the combat exchange framework in Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game.
Combat exchanges are extremely fun and flexible! They may look overly complicated but, in reality, they’re an amazing framework to add that incredibly important action component to your game! Give it a try as written, be patient with your players (and yourself) and, with practice, you’ll get the most out of them in no time!