Legend of the Elements Hits the Mark Despite Problems

Stylized martial artists wield elemental powers.

Legend of the Elements (LoE) is a new roleplaying game designed by Max Hervieux and based off the Apocalypse World system. Its setting is heavily inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, though the worlds are not quite identical. Instead of bending, for example, LoE has shaping, which is also a martial art that allows characters to control one of the four classical elements.*

Regardless of the fine print, Legend of the Elements is the game Avatar fans have been waiting for. Finally, we can roll up an element-wielding kung fu master and try our hand at restoring balance to a troubled world. But is this game really the answer to our hopes and dreams? Veteran readers will remember I wasn’t too pleased with my last foray into an Apocalypse World-based system. Let’s see if Legend of the Elements can do better than Dungeon World.

Character Creation Is Fast and Flavorful

Legend of the Elements manages to pull off the double trick of quick character creation that’s also deep enough to leave you with a satisfying character. First, you pick from a list of archetypes the game refers to as “playbooks.” These are broad bases for your character, like Fireshaper, Monk, or Warrior.

Each archetype comes with a list of important roleplaying traits that determine how you earn chi, the game’s meta currency. A Watershaper might be mothering and parental, or they might be vindictive and tempestuous.* Avatar fans will quickly recognize references to their favorite characters, although some options are drawn from more general anime tropes. This is a great way to help new players hit the ground running. At the same time, experienced players can create their own traits if they want to aim for something outside the designer’s original concept.

After that, it’s simply a matter of picking some cosmetic details and a few special abilities. Every archetype has six or seven abilities to choose from, and each one changes how the game is played. A Watershaper with the ability to manipulate ice is very different from a Watershaper who gains power from the moon. The game is wise to focus on depth of play instead of overwhelming players with too many options.

Legend of the Elements doesn’t allow for infinite character variety, but it is flexible enough that most players will be satisfied. They can make Zuko, Katara, or Toph, but Iroh would be a problem.* That’s fine, because Iroh is too powerful to make a good PC in the kind of game LoE promises. This stands in sharp contrast to Dungeon World, which wouldn’t let players make something as basic as a halfling bard.

Conflict Resolution Is Efficient and Fun

Apocalypse World’s core die mechanic of rolling 2d6+stat against a static difficulty isn’t great. Because the difficulty never changes, it’s hard to simulate a PC attempting something hard. Resisting the attack of a Fire Nation soldier is the same difficulty as fighting the Fire Lord himself.

Despite that, Legend of the Elements makes it work. PCs have access to a small number of very broad actions covering just about any situation that might come up, with character abilities sometimes adding a new action into the mix for variety. The game is very abstract, so GM and player are both free to narrate what happens without fear of running afoul of any rules.

The game also gives players a point of chi whenever they fail a roll, which is a fantastic idea. First, it takes away some of failure’s sting. Second, it helps the PCs who fail the most rolls catch up with their peers, since chi is also used as XP. Third, it encourages players to make rolls with stats that aren’t their highest, leading to more balanced play for all.

Almost all conflicts are handled with a single roll. If the conflict is a really big deal, the PCs might make a few set-up rolls first, but only on special occasions. This allows you to roll the dice and then get on with the story without getting bogged down in unnecessarily complex mechanics. Instead of hitpoints, PCs and NPCs alike are given descriptive tags about their state of health. This prevents the Dungeon World problem of needing to spend several rolls hacking through an enemy’s HP. If a player wants to knock the watershaping pirate unconscious, all the player needs to do is make a roll to give them the “unconscious” tag.   

Most importantly, character abilities feel like the elemental powers they represent. The rules for fireshaping bring home how dangerous and destructive it is while a Watershaper’s power makes players feel like they can bend and flow with any attack. Legend of the Elements creates an excellent mood for storytelling, and that’s no small feat.    

Character Creation Is Littered With Traps

Despite all the positive qualities of LoE’s character creation, it’s also host to a number of abilities that are completely useless but don’t appear that way to new players. The most egregious of these is the Aristocrat’s Mastermind ability. It lets players make a clever plan and then roll to see if it works. That’s it. If you’re asking why players can’t make a clever plan without this ability, the answer is that they absolutely can. It’s an ability that lets players do something they could already do.*

The Hunter archetype is also a trap for the unwary. Upon taking this archetype, players get to choose between starting with a bow and arrow or an animal companion. There is only one problem: the bow and arrow doesn’t actually do anything. It’s only flavor and has no impact on the game’s mechanics. The animal companion, on the other hand, has a number of cool abilities that are very helpful. Why is this even a choice? Why not just let the Hunter have both, since attacking with a bow and arrow is identical to attacking without one?

Speaking of animal companions, one of the powers that players can select for these loyal critters is called Zephyr. Flavor-wise, it lets the animal companion serve as a speedy mount. Mechanically, it lets players roll to see if they can reach a destination in time, with major consequences for failure. The thing is, Legend of the Elements has no other rules for travel that I could find, so without this ability the default assumption is that PCs can get wherever they need to go unless there’s something dramatically interesting in their way. By taking Zephyr, the player ironically makes it harder to get anywhere.

None of these abilities are as poorly balanced as Dungeon World’s paladin, but they are a hazard to unsuspecting players. If you’re planning to run Legend of the Elements, you’d be well served by reading through the various abilities and marking those which might need some house-rule boosting. Better to discover them now than through the complaints of unhappy players.

The GM Rules Are Terrible

There’s no getting around it: Legend of the Elements’ GMing section is awful. In the advice department, the game repeats several times that as a game master,* your role is purely reactionary. You shouldn’t plan ahead, because that would crush the players’ beautiful spirits. Instead, you only respond to what the players do. But hey, you’re allowed to prod them occasionally, so that’s nice.

This strategy might work in a group made entirely of extremely active players, but such groups are rare. In real life, many players won’t have the interest or ability to carry the story forward on their own, no matter how many times you ask them what they’re doing. Best-case scenario, one or two players will dominate the narrative while everyone else watches. Just as likely, you’ll end up with a bunch of blank stares.

Even if you somehow made this ridiculous idea work, being purely reactive will hurt the story, because it’s really hard to improv your way to a satisfactory conclusion. But wait, later on in the same section, LoE reveals that in fact the GM is meant to plan ahead. This contradiction is never resolved, but the game does have rules for planning the story, and they are terrible.

As GM, the game expects you to divide the story into several acts. This is harmless, except that you have to spend chi to advance to the next act. The only way you get chi is if the players spend it to boost their rolls. So, what if the players haven’t spent any chi? Maybe they’re saving all their chi to buy new abilities, or your group doesn’t mind suffering the consequences of failure. Are you supposed to throw unnecessary rolls at the PCs until someone spends the point of chi you need to advance the plot?

The very worst part of all this is that the book explicitly tells you that you can’t deviate from any of these rules. That would be cheating, according to Legend of the Elements. This is baffling, because GMs being able to mod the rules is a cornerstone of roleplaying. No set of rules, no matter how well designed, can account for every situation that might come up, so nearly every game published gives you permission to change the rules to fit your individual needs. Not LoE.

Fortunately, most players will never notice if you throw out LoE’s GMing rules and just plan sessions like you normally would. This could still be a problem if someone in your group is a rules lawyer, and in that case I can only advise you to lean heavily on the social authority being GM grants you. The real danger is to inexperienced game masters who might not have the confidence to go against these terrible rules.  

Some Rules Damage Player Agency

Legend of the Elements is a game that cares a lot about what players want to do, as evidenced by how often it tells you to only react in your role as GM. Despite that, the game has two rules that seriously violate player agency.

The first has to do with a player retiring their current character to play a new one. Unless the player has a lot of chi saved up,* the old character is handed over to the GM to do with as they please. As the game master, you can turn that character into a villain, comic relief, or corpse and the player can’t say anything about it. If the player does have the requisite chi saved, then they can buy a “safe retirement” for their old character.

A GM should never mess with a player’s former character without asking permission. That’s just basic courtesy. Players get very attached to their characters, even the ones they aren’t currently playing. If you tell a player that their awesome Fireshaper has decided to stop teaching at the academy to go on a world conquest spree, the player will not react well. But like so many of LoE’s other problems, this one is easy to ignore because it doesn’t relate to any other rules.

Unfortunately, the next one does. Legend of the Elements has a rule called Respect. Characters who respect each other often gain bonuses when working together. On the surface, this just a cool bit of flavor, until you realize that PC often don’t get a choice in whom they respect. The Earthshaper and Aristocrat archetypes both have abilities that unilaterally declare that another character respects them, with no consideration for how that character’s player feels about it.

Control over one’s character is a basic tenet of roleplaying games. Having that control dictated by someone else without getting any say is a deeply unpleasant experience. The Earthshaper and the Aristocrat are the worst offenders, but they’re hardly the only ones. And unlike other issues with Legend of the Elements, this problem isn’t so easy to fix. Respect is tied into many other important game mechanics, so messing with it will have far-reaching repercussions.

The best solution is to work carefully with your players to arrange in-game justifications for the Respect rules. This is a difficult dance, but it’s doable. It’s just too bad LoE wasn’t more dedicated to its ideals of putting player agency first.  

The Game Is Fun Despite Its Flaws

Legend of the Elements has its fair share of flaws, especially for inexperienced GMs who don’t know how to handle a system’s curve balls. Despite that, the game is worth playing because it has a solid core of basic mechanics. While the GMing rules are disappointing, the vast majority of rules used by the players function very well.

The game successfully emulates the atmosphere of shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender. When players reach for the dice, you almost never have to worry that the narrative will grind to a halt because of some rule that no one understands. Everything works smoothly, letting your group tell a great story.

While LoE’s problems behind the curtain are serious, they aren’t game breaking. If you’re a veteran GM who wants to get their elemental kung fu on, Legend of the Elements is worth the trouble of wrestling it to the ground. If you’re more of a neophyte, consider a different game.

Looking for an evening of fun? Uncover your lost memories and battle the supernatural in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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  1. SunlessNick

    It lets players make a clever plan and then roll to see if it works. That’s it. If you’re asking why players can’t make a clever plan without this ability, the answer is that they absolutely can. It’s an ability that lets players do something they could already do.

    Can it be used to set up offstage plans, as it were? Like the PC’s are off doing X, but Y and Z need to happen too, so I come up with a clever plan to set those things in motion – but I the player can’t come up with plans as clever as my character could – and much of it will be happening in isolation, with just me anyway, so we can abstract it to a roll.

    Or can it function like Preparedness in the Gumshoe system, but for retroactive plans you made, rather than tools you brought. Shit the wraiths have us cornered – rolling Preparedness would let you have forseen this and brought the ritually blessed ashes to return them to corpses – could rolling Mastermind let you have forseen this and recruited the Paladins of Charon* to thwart them?

    * The Etruscan Charon, who wasn’t a boatman, but instead carried a big hammer with which he beat the tar out of any dead people who sought to make trouble for the living.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So the exact text is…

      When you scheme and plan a future plot, roll +Keen. On a 10 or greater, the MC will pick 2 of the following conditions, only one of which must be addressed to succeed. On a 7, 8, or 9, the same thing, but you’ll need to address both.
      ~ It will be very expensive or resource-intensive.
      ~ It will take hours/days.
      ~ You’re going to need __________’s help.
      ~ __________ stands in the way of success.

      To me that just sounds like a decent rule for when someone wants a clever plan. It sounds like it should be a basic action, not a special ability.

      I like your idea of giving the Aristocrat the ability to make a clever plan retroactively though. That’s a quality house rule that I think I’ll adopt if I get a chance to run this again.

      • SunlessNick

        I have to concur with your interpretation of the text as written, yeah.

  2. Jesse

    I always find it bizarre when an RPG specifically states you can’t deviate from the rules as written. I mean…how would they even enforce that? And why would they care? As long as someone buys the book and enjoys the game, does it matter if the players follow all the grappling rules?

    Otherwise sounds like an interesting game, may have to check it out sometime.

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