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Theoretical Phys Ed: Pro Bending

June 25, 2012

One of the great things about fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, is that it allows us to explore how people would act if they were capable of things that are impossible in real life. Of course, people make games an recreation out of anything they do, and so we should expect any well-realized fantasy world to account for how the rules of their world translate into the rules of the games their characters play. Since so many of the fantasies that we create for ourselves involve the expansion of physical abilities beyond their real-world limits, it’s hardly surprising that many of these fictional worlds end up with a range of sports. These can be mundane, or mystifying, but they typically serve as a plot device or an opportunity to develop one of the characters. Even the best are rarely well defined enough to be of interest to a game designer.

This weekend saw the airing of the final episode of the season for The Legend of Korra, a surprisingly mature children’s show that takes place in a world that’s a pastiche of Asian cultures where martial arts practitioners called “benders” use spiritual powers to control the four elements. This past season was set in a post industrial revolution city similar to Shanghai or New York City, complete with rudimentary automobiles and zeppelins. In a detail that evokes the turn of the century fascination with bare-knuckle boxing, the most popular sport is a closely regulated “pro-bending” competition, wherein the main character, Korra, briefly joins a professional team. Although it’s primary purpose is to introduce some secondary characters, and to provide an opportunity for some kung-fu pyrotechnics, Pro Bending is actually one of the better thought out of fictional professional sports that I’ve seen. The show’s writers have created a number of amusements for their benders in the past, but never before have they featured so prominently in the plot, and so for pro bending they spent a good deal of time defining the rules and keeping them consistent. However, it can still be fun to take a closer look, and see what we can learn, as well as what might still be missing.

Briefly, pro bending plays like a combination of Sumo and UFC, but with magic instead of punching. Two teams, each comprised of one earth, fire, and water bender, fight for control of a playfield. The playfield is divided into 6 zones: when an individual is pushed back out of their current zone, he (or she; it’s co-ed, but I’ll use he from now on for convenience) must remain in that zone and cannot return to the forward zone. (The rules for zone advancement aren’t very explicit about how advancement is handled when not all team-mates are in the forward-most zone. If all of the players on that team advance to the forward-most controlled zone, the game will tend to resolve more quickly, whereas is a player behind the front line can only advance a single zone for each zone captured, games will tend to have more back-and-forth. Personally, I feel the game better supports the former.)  If all of a team’s players are pushed back, the other team moves forward to take control of that zone, and play continues. Whichever team controls more zones at the end of the time limit wins the round, and the team with the most points after three rounds wins the match. If all 3 team members are pushed off their 3rd zone (i.e. off the playfield entirely, in this case into a large pool of water), it counts as a “knockout”, and the other team wins the entire match regardless of the round they’re in or the score (if any individual player is knocked out, he returns at the beginning of the next round). Thus, all three rounds are played of the score at the end of the second round. The official full rules are available here, although they’re also substantially reproduced in more readable form on the Avatar wiki.

Note the zones, the shape of the play field, and the disc dispensers.

Generally, I’m pretty pleased with this design. It has some clear visual feedback about the state of the match, and has well defined time and playfield limits. Importantly for both sports and narrative purposes, it also has a “perpetual comeback” mechanism. No player’s activity is ever pointless because even a team that is in dire straits, having lost 2 rounds or even 2 players, has the potential to recover for the win. This is important narratively, to let the hero stage an unlikely and dramatic comeback, but that drama applies equally to the TV show’s audience as it would to a hypothetical “real” audience watching the match. Drama is drama, the only difference is that TV audience has the team they’re rooting for pre-selected. There are also some well-defined tiebreaker rules for resolving a round that ends with both teams holding 3 zones. The tiebreaker requires that each team select one team member to duel individually on a smaller platform, basically like American Gladiators. It’s a clear, unambiguous resolution that doesn’t rely on arbitrary “points”, like real-world boxing does, and it offers an opportunity for a bit of strategy to come into play when deciding which team member to select.

There are a couple things in place to balance out the perpetual comeback, however. While it’s great fun to see the underdog win, getting an early lead should count for something, and it does. There’s the obvious fact that if one team member has been knocked out of play, their remaining team-mates are outnumbered and have to fend off blows from 2 or even all 3 of their opponents. Less obviously is the fact that the bending playfield narrows towards the outer zones. This means that as players are pushed backwards, they have less room to maneuver to avoid their opponents’ attacks. Additionally, they have fewer materials to work with. Earth benders, who are limited to the manipulation of round clay discs that pop out of the ground on command, have fewer disc dispensers in the outer regions. Water benders draw water from streams flowing beneath the playing surface, and so may be similarly hampered.

However, fire benders, those lucky fellows, don’t suffer any similar limitations. It’s well established in the fiction of the world that fire benders are able to conjure flames from within their own bodies. So, there’s potential for a pretty serious balance issue between the elements. This is, however, somewhat mitigated by the requirement that each team field one of each of the three benders.

What about air-benders? Well, in the fiction of the world, air-benders were subject to staggeringly effective genocide a little over 100 years prior. (As I said, surprisingly mature for a children’s show). As a result, there are only a handful of air-benders alive, and none that are involved in professional bending. However, as the commissioner of pro-bending, this is an eventuality that you’d like to account for. There are basically three ways I can see to approach this.

  1. No air benders allowed. You can play in the air-bender leagues, kid.
  2. All teams required to field 1 air bender in addition to the current line-up, thus upping teams to 4 members. Everybody plays.
  3. Teams continue to field 3 players, but can include some combination of earth, air, water, and fire.

I’m not comfortable with the first solution, for what should be obvious reasons. The second solution is perhaps the path of least resistance design-wise, but comes into logistical problems when the number of air-benders in the world is so limited. The third solution is my favorite, as it brings a strategic choice into the match from in the form of which elements a team chooses to field, especially if the selection is blind until the match starts. A manager might know that his fire bender is stronger than his earth bender, but that the opponent’s best player is better against fire than earth. If a limited number of substitutions are available per match, say, a player cannot re-enter once pulled, it may provide an interesting decision to be made even between rounds.

However, this may also introduce a weakness in the balance between the elements that we identified above. If a team has a choice of which benders to field, air and fire are going to be the obvious choices, as they have no reliance on outside material. Most likely, earth would be left out of every team based on the limited availability of discs. (It’s possible that the additional impact from the discs makes earth benders hit more heavily than their counterparts with other elements, or that there’s some other advantage earth bending that balances this out. Regardless, earth benders are disproportionately punished when pushed into the rear zones compared to other elements because they have fewer dispensers to work with.) This is an inherent inequality in the rules of the world they inhabit, but in the interest of an interesting sport design, we want every choice to be equally viable.

At this point, a thought has probably occurred to you: the career of a pro-bender must be incredibly short. Because if fire-benders can summon fire from the depths of their souls, what’s to prevent them from simply burning their opponents alive, other than the quick ministrations of their water-bending team-mate and maybe some flame retardant clothing? Well, it turns out there are some particular rules regarding the intensity and duration of the bending allowable within the ring. For example:

Each water blast cannot exceed one second in duration, meaning that waterbenders may not use any form of a constant hose-like stream of water against their opponents. Water must be used in its liquid state, not as a gas or a solid, meaning that steam, fog, and ice are prohibited in game play; it cannot be filled with anything, such as earth. Water is the only element for which head strikes are allowed. (Source)

Similar restrictions are placed on each of the other elements. The intent seems to essentially approximate physical strikes (punches and kicks) using the various elements, leaving the contest to not the most creative or most powerful bender, but to the player who is most adept at striking without being struck, and at using them to manipulate his opponent to his advantage. What we end up with is a stylized combat comprised almost entirely of jabs and whips, which bears perhaps as much relation to an elemental battle to the death as modern fencing does to  the Crusades.

The amount of bending allowed is well regulated.

There are a few details that aren’t well defined. For instance, there’s no restriction on the speed with which earth benders hurl their discs, although because these techniques are based in martial arts, there is an implication that the speed of the bending is limited by the speed of motions of the bender (the extent to which bending is related to the physical motions is poorly defined in the show in general). Although the rules specifically mention that bouncing the earth discs off the ring ropes is allowed, there’s no discussion of other kinds of flanking attacks, such as a striking an opponent from the side or behind with a stream of water are allowed. (Water and earth benders are prohibited from sourcing water or discs from behind the opponent, but it isn’t clear if an element sourced from your own side then looped around is legal.) However, these are relatively small questions, and we can make reasonable assumptions to resolve them.

Using the guidelines for the other elements,it would be fairly easy to construct a similar rule set for air benders. Previously, the show had established that air bending can be used  to generate high pressure balls of air that can then strike with significant physical impact. Attacks would most likely be limited to these sorts of “air balls”, and short gusts. Some additional rules might also have to be constructed to handle air bending assisted movement. Although defining the rules would be fairly simple, air’s relative invisibility might present some interesting enforcement problems. However, in the context of the television show, air bending strong enough to have noticeable effect is generally portrayed as stylized white wind gusts for the benefit of the audience. Since my intent isn’t to judge the real world plausibility of Pro-bending, I’ll assume some similar mechanism makes it possible to detect any bending activities.

For the benefit of the audience, air bending is typically visible in the show.

Are there changes that we could make to the core rule-set that would yield a more interesting game? A few come to mind. If the tie breaker rules are applied frequently, I’d consider adding an additional 7th zone to the middle of the ring, either a narrow  strip that all players start in, or a small zone occupied only by a single player from each team (let’s call him the team captain). The latter feature already exists on the field, although it’s currently only used for the tie breaker rounds. The intent is to make this center zone much easier to lose or gain and, because there are an odd number of zones, to eliminate the possibility of a draw once the center zone has been claimed. Only an extraordinary stalemate from the very beginning of the match would result in a draw.

If I was designing pro bending from scratch, my natural inclination would be to try to exploit the inherent asymmetry in the different elements rather than attempting to legislate them away. While it would be tempting to attempt to simply add some minor advantages for earth benders to balance out the lack of earth’s availability, I don’t know how much room there is within the existing boxing-like structure. So, while different roles could be designed for each type of bender that makes use of their natural properties but nonetheless grants them all equal importance (think back / lineman / receiver, or alternately, support / DPS / tank),  that would probably lend itself to an entirely different and generally more cerebral design, and would probably end up being “bending-ball”. At the end of the day, walking through the series it becomes clear that the rules were built around narrative beats rather than robust game design. However, given that design goals included the boxing aesthetic and simplicity for the sake of communication to the TV audience, there isn’t a lot that I would change in the current gladiatorial format.

Do you have a topic suggestion for a future Theoretical Phys Ed entry? Leave a comment!

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