World of Elements: Bending Spirit Tattoos

Kanji = ink spirits imbued with elemental power. Also, watch the anime Mushishi.

I don’t normally do “lore-related” posts. But here we are.

I’ve been using the Free Kriegspiel Revolution rules of Adventure Hour! for World of Elements. It’s my love letter to Avatar. Here are the rules:

  • The Game Master sets the situation by giving information
  • One or more players make a choice
  • The Game Master describes the impact

When a choice is risky or uncertain, the Game Master declares the possible impact and rolls two six-sided dice. Then the player whose character most at risk rolls two six-sided dice.

  • If the player rolls higher, their character succeeds
  • If the Game Master rolls higher, something bad happens
  • If they tie, the character succeeds AND something bad happens

Whatever happens, the Game Master describes the impact.

I’ve talked about how skills are second to more tactile elements. People have been changing abstract things like spell slots into scrolls (like in Knave, for example). Or a wizard’s magic comes from holding tomes or downing potions. Imbuing diegetic elements with purpose, magic, and usefulness is clever design. Items in the world have a meaning to both players of the game and people of the world, tightening the connection between the real and fictional world.

These are just too spicy to ignore.

Bending, being tied to innate qualities of a person, can be hard to implement into an RPG without it feeling hollow. Many iterations of Avatar role-playing that I’ve seen tie bending to a number that means something to the player, but NOT to the world. I’ve been guilty of this in my game.

For character creation this begs the question: “why wouldn’t a player role-playing a bender put that bending skill/ability as the highest thing possible?” The result of that is a whole lot of character sheets that look the same. Or all benders of the same type look mechanically exactly the same.

So I made bending a tactile thing, like people have been doing with spells and magic in other games.

I made bending into tattoo spirits.

Check the very first gif to see what I mean.

In-universe, these spirits are called “kanji,” referring to the Japanese form of writing. These kanji spirits attach themselves to the skin of a person and grant them the ability to control the aspect of the element that they literally mean.

See the other starting tables for Adventure Hour! games here.

In play, each player rolls 2d6 to find the kanji they start the game with. Or rolls twice and picks one.

A samurai wields a katana in his hand and the “spark” kanji on his right shoulder. He keeps the spirit covered with a bandage so as to not give away his advantage whereby he locks swords with an opponent and shocks them into immobility.

A wrestler has the “immovable” kanji emblazoned on his stomach. He is known far and wide for his skill but is also prone to stake his kanji in rash bets when his “natural talent” is questioned.

A mysterious village girl may have the “snow” kanji on her wrist, inviting snowfall at unplanned times throughout the year. Some younger villagers praise the breaks from the summer heat, while the older villagers know how bad snow can be for the yearly harvest.

The presence of kanji in a world invites more questions:

  • Where do these spirits come from?
  • Do they wander from the spirit world?
  • Or are they called? Or something else entirely?
  • How do people find kanji?
  • Do people collect kanji to become more powerful benders? Do they Highlander-style take them from benders?
  • Is there a cost for using kanji?
  • Does having more kanji attached to your body tax your spirit?
  • Can kanji merge with one another?
  • Can people trade kanji?
  • Are kanji handed down from generation to generation? Are they some form of birthright?
  • Do kanji choose the benders as wands in Harry Potter choose the wizard?
  • Can kanji be destroyed?

I love the flexibility of this idea. The words above are only a handful of the ones a person could come up with. We tend to think of Avatar in relation to the four elements, but there’s always more to add. How does the “machine” kanji or the “fish” kanji change your world?

Each word also is vague, and that’s by design. Think of how to apply these words. No designer can think of every use for every tool they put into the game. And I’m a big fan of that.

Random last thought: with bending being from spirits instead of bloodlines (“sort of”), you no longer have to explain why a firebender, airbender, and waterbender can get along in the same group. There are no cultural divides that come with bending. Now, you might see this as a loss (Avatar has been deservedly praised for the way in which it handles culture so elegantly), but for a game trying to suit the wants of players without introducing needless conflict or hand-waving, I think it’s a good fit. Just think of feudal Japan with its villages and lords and samurai (also, watch the anime Samurai Champloo). Make conflict from loyalty to people and other political groups instead of bending-nations.

There you have it. I did a sneaky lore thing that ties to mechanics of character creation and the larger game world.

Happy bending!

3 thoughts on “World of Elements: Bending Spirit Tattoos

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