Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #23 - Icons

Yup, more 13th Age stuff! I've previously gushed over/discussed the One Unique Thing and the Escalation Die, but I'm not done grabbing stuff from this game to use elsewhere. This time I'm going to focus on Icons and Icon Relationships. As before you can reference the 13th Age SRD webpage or download the PDF direct from Pelgrane Press.


So what are Icons? Icons are NPCs, powerful ones who have the ability to influence the game world. These people can be good, bad, or neutral, they have their own agendas, goals, and spheres of influence. Most importantly they have taken note of the characters (more on that in a bit).

In the stock 13th Age setting the icons take the form of people like the High King, The Archmagus, the Savage Lord, the Deathless One, and others. They have power and influence that can cover major portions of the world, the have followers devoted to them, and they make war and alliances with each other. Let me assume you aren't familiar with the 13th Age setting however and turn to something that is likely universal: Lord of the Rings/Middle Earth... Icons in Middle Earth during the end of the third age might look like this (note that instead of the general roles I will refer to specific figures):

  • Sauron, The Dark Lord - Sauron is clearly evil, has dominion over all of Mordor, legions of orks and goblins and the like, and is making war on Gondor.
  • Denethor, The Lord of Gondor - OK, yes, he was just Steward, but without a king he was the man in charge of Gondor, its armies, and its lands. Arguments could be made for him being good or neutral.
  • Saruman, The White Hand, Lord of Isengard - Saruman has minimal holdings (Isengard and the surrounding area) but a powerful army of Uruk-Hai. He is good in the Hobbit, neutral during the early stages of LotR, and Evil after his betrayal is revealed. He is set on making war against Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor.
  • Theoman, The Horse Lord - King of Rohan, and ally of Gondor, he is neutral under Wormtongue's influence but returns to good once freed. 
  • Galadriel, The Lady of Lothlorien - Though she is good she also pursues an agenda that prevents her from intervening directly for most of the series. Her domain in the Lothlorien forest is limited, but she is nominally an ally of Gondor and Rohan.
There are more of course, the Dwarf King Under the Mountain, the Lord of Dale, Elrond and others, but this gives you the gist. These figures have power over the setting and being in their favor, or out of their favor, has repercussions on the characters. The idea here is to get the GM thinking about the major powers in their setting, and through that to consider some of the larger events that may be happening in the game's background.

Icons are scalable though. Maybe you already know you want to run a game that is more limited in scope, not a whole world but a single nation or city. Let's take Seattle in the year 2070 of the Shadowrun universe. Icons for a game set almost exclusively within Seattle might include the Mayor, the local head of Lone Star security, a crime boss (the Yakuza perhaps),  a powerful AI in the matrix, the head of a local cabal of mages, the CEO of one or more corporations. These some of these figures probably have influence outside of the city, but within the scope of a city set campaign they are the movers and shakers, and being on the good or bad side of any one of them is going to provide boons and banes.

Icon Relationships

So how do the characters and Icons interact? Seldom directly though in time that may change as the characters accrue more power. At the start of a game characters get three points of icons relationships to allocate as they see fit. These points can be spent on forging a relationship with a given Icon or Icons. These relationships can be positive, negative, or conflicted. The number of points assigned becomes the number of dice for determining if the relationship will impact the session. A player could have a negative relationship with a villain perhaps, but they could also have a negative relationship with a good/heroic Icon. Maybe the High King has reason to hate you, perhaps your family turned traitor and you have been branded by association. 

These relationships help and hinder your character in equal measure. Sure, being a beloved cousin of the High Magus is going to be useful at times, but there's a downside when that Icon's enemies decide to get to them through you. Likewise being the hated enemy of an evil Yakuza boss will get you give you connections in the underworld, but it will also make you a "known accomplice" in the eyes of the law. 

The other nice part of icon relationships is that the players are telling you who they want to interact with. If the Icon list for your setting has fifteen icons a group of five players would need to be taking nothing but one point relationships to hit every Icon. More than likely you will see relationships with perhaps half of those figures, and that allows the GM to know which NPCs are important to the players. It also provides built in connections to the setting for the players, allowing them to know that their characters have some connection to the movers and shakers of the world, and by extension they have the ability to affect real change in the game world.

Not every game will need or benefit from Icons and Icon Relationships, but especially for lasting campaigns these mechanics light systems can help the GM and players get on the same page about what they want out of the game, connect the players and their characters to the world, and to ensure that there is always opportunity to gain help, or suffer troubles at the hands of a role played relationship outside of the player group.

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