13th Age’s idea of icons is highly portable, looks great in theory, but needs thought before one can use it effectively.
TOO MANY ICONS!
There are too many icons for the average game. The magical number seven (plus or minus two) suggests there should be five of them in play; with what looks like it will be six regular players, I have nine active – The Lord of the Rings manages with three: Archmage (Saruman at first, later Gandalf); Elf Queen (Galadriel); Lich King (Sauron). Actually, LotR is a good example of a party of PCs (the Fellowship) ending one Age and starting another by their actions.
But I digress. The players’ choice of icon relationships is them telling me how much they want those key NPCs to matter in the campaign; their One Unique Things and backstories are them telling me how their PCs matter. Let’s call their chosen icons A to I, to avoid ruining the suspense for any players reading.
H has links to four players; A, E and G to three each; B to two; and C, D, F and I one each. A and G have the most relationship dice across the party, closely followed by H and then E, with the rest trailing quite a bit behind.
THE COVENANT OF THE ARC
Take a look at The Angry GM’s post on story arcs here, because it explains what I’m up to better than I can. Too Long: Didn’t Read version: A campaign needs several main story arcs and a number of non-arc episodic stories, so that the GM can vary the pacing and avoid player boredom; paradoxically, the main arcs need relatively few episodes. In my case I already have a main arc in mind, which I think will take roughly 10 episodes to resolve, depending on how well the PCs fare in figuring out what it is; when it ends, that will change the game world significantly, so it will end the campaign as well. I have a secondary arc which will end fairly early on in the campaign, but positions the PCs in readiness for the start of the main arc; that will need roughly 15 episodes, and will finish in a climactic set piece which switches the arcs.
For comparison, a Savage Worlds plot point campaign has maybe 8-10 point points (adventures on the main arc) and maybe 30-40 episodic stories.
I expect the campaign to last about 50 episodes, each of which will take around two sessions to complete because the weekly game slot is two hours long instead of the 3-4 hours I’m used to. That’s 100 sessions, or roughly two years of gaming – gadfly that I am, I will be ready to move on by then, I’m sure.
So, 50 episodes to sort out, and maybe 20-25 on the precursor and primary arcs. That leaves roughly 25-30 to identify, at at least one more main arc; and for those I’m going to use the icon relationships, because they tell me who the PCs want to be important. In all there are 19 relationships, so if I use one episode for each, that will give me about the right number. It also means that the more links there are to an icon, the more often he or she will influence events. Each of these episodes should tie in to a PC’s backstory, and either foreshadow or provide clues to the main arcs.
To recap, icons A, E, G and H are both the ones linked to the most PCs, and those with the strongest links. Fortunately A and G are enemies, and both dislike H. A and E are allies. So it seems there should be a secondary arc about the rivalry between A and G, with E weighing in on A’s side and H generally causing trouble and sowing confusion.
Initially the campaign will switch between the precursor arc, the secondary arc, and unrelated episodes. At about the time the PCs reach Veteran rank, there is a big set piece plot twist which switches the precursor arc for the primary arc. Towards the end of Heroic, the PCs finish the secondary arc, and Legendary rank is dominated by their efforts to complete the primary arc.
The GM will tell you when to roll your icon dice, typically at the end of every third session. Rolls of 1-4 have no effect, a roll of 5 gives you a benefit with a complication, and a 6 gives you a benefit with no down side. (Remember to tell the GM which icon relationship each 5 or 6 relates to.)
You can invoke any 5 or 6 result at any time before the next roll. When you do so, you must tell the GM how the result helps you and how it’s connected to the relevant icon; you may also describe how a 5 complicates your life as well, or leave that to the GM (in which case he will tie it to one of your Hindrances).
Limitations: Icons will never appear in person to help you, although their subordinates might.
Examples: These are listed with the benefit first, and a possible complication following the BUT.
- I have a magic item for the duration of this session, BUT I woke up with it next to me, and I have no idea how I got it. Or whose blood that is on the sheets.
- The guard leaves the cell door unlocked that night, BUT I had to bribe him with my most valuable possession.
- I unexpectedly bump into an old flame/war buddy/friend, who can give me useful information/a little cash/a place to hide, BUT they have this problem they need me to take care of. (This is like using the Connections Edge without having to roll Streetwise.)
- Those enemies know my rep, and retreat rather than fight us; BUT they’ll be back later, with reinforcements. (Including your Enemy if you have one, or local law enforcement if you’re Wanted.)
- Those bandits know you hate the icon, and they hate him too, so they’ll let you go; BUT they still want all your valuables to leave you alone.
Another example of rolling a 5, from the Dying Earth RPG by Pelgrane Press:
(No challenge to copyright intended.)
FOR FURTHER STUDY
Once I’ve finished this campaign, which I estimate will be towards Christmas 2018, I expect I’ll switch back to a space opera of some kind. If icon relationships work well in Hearts of Stone, I’ll reuse them in that game too; but I think in SF they would work better as ties to organisations rather than – or maybe as well as – powerful individuals. Also, I’m thinking of encouraging stronger ties to fewer icons by granting specific benefits… For example, “If you take three positive dice with the Imperial Scout Service, they will give you constructive possession of a scoutship.”