Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Personal Icons

Ok, so now that you've got the idea of icons, what can you do?

First and foremost, you can use them.  The 13 in the rules are rock solid, and the text provides lots of interesting guidelines on customizing them.  As is the nature of iconic characters, you have a lot of leeway around the core concept that can let you do a whole hell of a lot with the tools on the table.

But for many of us, the urge to create is too strong, and the first and most straightforward thing to do is to roll your own.  This may be because you want to translate the ideas to a familiar setting, and there are existing NPCs who seem like they could fill the Icon's roles, or it may be just because you want to create something new from scratch.

If you're doing this for a setting you already know and love, I don't have a lot of advice.  You presumably are already invested enough in the setting that you have a good sense of what you want to see out of your icons. My only piece of advice is to really buy into the Icon model (or at least into Anchors). A lot of settings have very well fleshed out factions, and your job as a GM is to replace the faction with its Icon.  This can sometimes require doing a little bit of violence to the concept of the faction, since most are usually written up with the idea first and the leader second, but so long as you really buy into it, you can do it.

Similarly, don't hesitate to prune a bit. Many really interesting setting have more factions and potential icons than you really want to have in play all at once.  13 is a good number, and I'd be careful going too far afield from it.[1] Not every faction necessarily needs to have an icon, especially if the factions themselves are major subgroups.  For example, I'm very fond of Fading Suns, a wonderful dark sci-fi game. By memory, it has an emperor, 5 noble houses, 5 merchant guilds, 5 church factions, 2 major friendly alien races, 1 major unfriendly alien race, 1 not friend/not enemy alien race, plus diabolists and two flavors of barbarian. That would be over twenty icons, which would just be crazy.

In that situation, figure out how to aggregate a few of them, and take advantage of the multiple factions to underscore the politics of things - if you have 2 Icons who are nobles, then you have implicitly created the lines along which the nobles have lined up.  If you have one Icon for The Church, that encompasses all the sub-factions, but if you pop out one sub-faction (say, the Inquisition) then you'e just highlighted what will be important in your game.  Don't intend Barbarians to come up much in your game? Don't bother giving them an Icon at all.  As you make these choices, you are answering questions of what your game is going to be about.

If you're doing it from scratch consider a few of the subtleties that went into the existing icons.

First, each one has a concrete, pursuable agenda (or, barring that, a very active modus operandi).  This means that while it's important what Icons are, what they do is even more important. Why is this important to designing a new Icon?  Because it means you don't need to sit down and calculate some kind of sophisticated relationship map to make sure all your Icons interact properly.  If they are driven, then the points of overlap and conflict will make themselves apparent, and that dynamism will evolve organically.

Second, and perhaps most obviously, no Icons exist in a vacuum. They have agents, followers, servants or the like - they are the faces of the most important factions of the world.  When you think about an Icon, think about the people that surrounds it (and by extension, why the icon would want to interact with adventurer types).

Last (and this is a great trick) notice that Icons built the map in 13th Age.  Most of the Icons are tied into one or more locations, and when you introduce an Icon, you're going to want to think about the impact on geography.  At the very least, most Icons have a seat of power, but many Icons also imply locations by their existence. The Dwarf King, for example, implies the existence of the lost dwarven kingdoms as well as his current city.   Sometimes the locations aren't locations s much as features - the Archmage is tied to the system of geomantic wards, for example, but the idea holds.

Note that the locations are not all unique.  Both the Emperor and the Lich King suggest an empire. The Elf Queen (via dark elves) and the Dwarf King both suggest an underdark.  The Diabolist and the Great Gold Wyrm both suggest the Abyss.  Bear this in mind when you remove or add an Icon - what locations are you removing ties to, what new locations are you introducing, and what existing locations are you changing the dynamic on?  Consider, for example, how the Abyss changes if you keep the Diabolist but remove the Great Golden Wyrm.

Anyway, those are things to keep in mind if you just want to hack the existing 13th age model.  Tomorrow, we're going to hack it a little further with the idea of Anchors.

1 - I say to you right now, the one concept I will cheerfully accept 16 Icons for is this: Plansecape. One for each faction, plus the Lady of Pain herself.  I have no words for how well that could work.


  1. I'm gonna comment on the footnote because I'm largely nodding at the rest. :)

    I never got as familiar with Planescape as I meant to. Why's it got 15 (not counting the Lady of Pain)? I thought it all keyed off the 3x3 alignment grid, which = 9.

    1. So, the Great Wheel from planescape did a little bit of cheating to tie the planes to the alignment system, making some of them sort of North-northwesty, so there was a good-ish lawful neutral plane, and an evilish one and so on. I think it was 16 in all (plus Outlands).

      With the factions, it get's even more fiddly since their mapping to alignments is much muddier. Some (like the Harmonium or the Xaositects) have clear alignment inclinations, but others (Dustment, Sensates) are muddier. Most often they had one element (like, the Harmonium are all lawful) but the other axis was free floating (so there are paladins and tyrants alike within their ranks).

      Let's see How many I can remember without Wikipedia.
      The Harmonium
      The Guvners
      The Mercykillers
      The Sensates
      The Fated
      The Dustmen
      The Bleak Cabal
      The Godsmen
      The Ciphers
      The Free League
      The Athar
      The Xaositechts
      The Doomguard
      (And now I check wikipedia)
      The Revolutionary league
      The Signers

    2. Mentioned this to you on Twitter, but I thought I'd post it here too.

      I'd take this idea for Planescape and put a different spin on it. Personify each plane as an Icon and then the powers and proxies would be the Icon's most powerful servants.

  2. Just lots of enthusiastic nodding.

    Finding a balance in the number of Icons is a key part of this secret sauce.

  3. I'd also suggest limiting yourself to a prime number of icons as well, both for arcane mathematical and psychological reasons (it becomes difficult to split up the icons into "teams"), thus retaining the idea of being iconic. If you can't go prime, at least try for odd.

    If you are trying to work out their interaction in a limited environment I suggest following the same procedure with a smaller prime, particularly in an interaction over a smaller concern (such as the "Elder Races" or "Underdark"). This may allow you to start thinking how the competing interests should play out, and where they might cooperate.

    [It also has the advantage that you can create Venn diagrams with an odd number of elements that are readable, although they get very arcane for n > 5).]


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