“The Quest of the Avatar is the search for a new standard, a new vision of life for which our people may strive. We seek the person who can become a shining example of our nation and guides us from the Age of Darkness into the Age of Light.” Lord British, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Avatar is one of those words that gets overused and abused. It refers to the imaginary blue aliens that real soldiers can possess to visit a magical alien world. It refers to a kid who is the reincarnated spirit of a martial arts master who can unify the elemental-themed inhabitants of the four kingdoms. It refers to the imaginary being you become when you play World of Warcraft or scream racial epithets at people who are running their games wrong on the D&D Forums. But the funny thing is, those meanings aren’t as abusive to the word as you might guess.
Avatar is a Sanskrit word derived from the words for “crossing over” and “downward” and it refers to the wordly or bodily incarnation of a deity or supreme being. Basically, when a deity takes on a human or animal form, that’s an avatar.
Avataravada, the belief in avatars, has its origins in the Hindu faith. At least, the word does. But many faiths and mythologies include the idea of deities descending to earth in various forms. Zeus was always coming down, screwing the brains out of any Greek woman with a penchant for bestiality. In Hinduism, though, things are laid out pretty clearly and avataravada is an important idea. The most well known and popular description comes from the Bhagavadagita Upanishad, usually shortened to the Bhagavad Gita or just the Gita. Bhagavadagita, by the way, translates to “the divine song.”
The Bhagavadagita takes the form of a gospel delivered by Lord Krishna to the great heroic archer Arjun on the eve of battle. In it, Lord Krishna explains the nature of the eternal soul, reincarnation, the nature of the world and the divine, how to obtain divinity, and the nature of avatars. Lord Krishna explains that he, himself, is an avatar of Vishnu, one of the supreme beings of Hinduism (technically, one of the three aspects of the supreme being since there is only truly only one in Hinduism). When Vishnu sees that the world is becoming amoral and people are losing their way, he wills himself to be reborn as a human and goes among humans to teach them the way of dharma (a very complicated word that might best be called ‘cosmic order’) and to drive away the wicked.
So, all of those avatars that are choking our pop-culture? Yeah, they kind of get it. Descending from on high, being reborn in another form to interact with a different world, that’s avatars. Even Ultima’s Avatar has the gist of it, crossing over from another world to help impose cosmic order and morality. It’s in there.
Anyway, it is pretty easy to come up with ways to use avatars in your D&D games. Deities can always pop down in human/animal forms. Just throw some old geezer into your game with some canaries and you’re good, right? But… how about this for a twist. Do an avatar campaign. The players invent deities and then create their characters as avatars reawakened in a wicked, dying world. They lack most of their divine knowledge and power, this being the only way they can manifest in the real world, but maybe each can perform one specific miracle once in a while related to their divine nature (pick a mid-level cleric spell each one can cast once a day or week or whatever). Together, they team up to prevent the world from collapsing or being overrun by devils or jaegers or whatever. Along the way, they have to deal with the corruption and wickedness of people who have lost their faith.