13th Sage: How to Create Meaningful Icons For a Setting

13th Age icon symbolsby Wade Rockett

Greyhawk. Golarion. Eberron. Mystara. The names of these settings ring out in the history of roleplaying games. It’s no surprise that many 13th Age fans want to run campaigns in them, or others that are equally beloved. And one question comes up all the time: how do I figure out who the icons are in that setting? 

That was the project I undertook when I turned 13 powerful NPCs from the Midgard Campaign Setting into icons for the Midgard Bestiary by Kobold Press. Here’s what I learned: When you’re identifying the icons in a setting, whether it’s an existing product or your own homebrew campaign, focus on Connections, Goals, Geography and Flavor.

Connections

There’s only one mechanic for icons: relationship dice. This is the most important thing to understand about icons. They are all social by nature. A powerful dragon who spends all of his time in the heart of a mountain, sleeping on a mound of treasure, is not an icon. But a dragon who rules a city-state could be an icon, because she has followers, factions, allies, enemies and a need to employ adventurers.

This is important on a practical level because someone has to provide the benefit of an icon relationship roll to a player character, whether it’s gold, a magic item, a map, a copy of a key, a crew of henchmen, or valuable information. Even if the benefit comes in the form of a flashback, it’s still a flashback to a past interaction with a follower or foe of the icon. (Or at high levels, the icon itself.)

Goals

Here’s another reason that greedy dragon I mentioned isn’t an icon: he doesn’t have goals. All icons want something, and they use their power and influence to chase after that thing. Usually what they want gets in the way of something another icon wants, and that’s when the fun really starts. Goals make icons more than just vending machines for benefits — it makes them compelling and exciting additions to your campaign. If a setting’s NPC isn’t driven to accomplish or prevent something, they won’t be a very interesting icon.

Geography

An icon’s influence can span the globe, but most of them have a center of power somewhere. A few, such as Midgard’s Baba Yaga, are nomads who might turn up anywhere; but such beings aren’t the rule. (And adventurers are still more likely to find that cunning Feywitch in the Old Margreve forest than they are in the Southlands.)

When choosing the icons for your campaign, consider the extent to which an NPC’s influence is determined by geography. In 13th Age‘s default setting, the icons are most powerful and influential on their home turf, but their actions can affect events setting-wide. But not every setting includes people whose influence could be felt anywhere, no matter how far.

Depending on your comfort level, you can take one of two approaches here:

  • Decide where you want your campaign to take place, and choose icons based on which powerful NPCs with goals and followers could reasonably influence events in that place. For example, if your campaign takes place in and around a single city, your icons could be the ruler of the city, the local crime lord, the dwarf clan chief up in the nearby mountains, the northern barbarian king whose mercenaries fill the army’s ranks, the elf queen of the woods surrounding the city, and the scheming undead lord of a neighboring principality. If the city is important enough, faraway icons (even ones on other planes) could take an active interest in what happens there.
  • Present your players with all the possible icons in the setting, and have them decide which ones they want to be involved with. Then apply the above process in reverse, identifying a place where all these powers could be in play.

You can also use the involvement of icons who are distant, and their influence limited, to foreshadow that something important is going to happen that makes them want to have agents on the ground. If a baron sends assassins to kill a high priest on the other side of a continent, there must be a good reason he went to all that trouble. Maybe the baron has a direct interest in the affairs of church and state halfway around the world; or maybe he’s allied with, or being blackmailed by, a faction closer to where the PCs are based.

Flavor

Your choice of icons influences the type of campaign you’ll run, and which your players will play. Ask yourself whether making a particular NPC an icon helps to create the kind of game you’ll enjoy playing.

If the PCs never venture far from their city, but a distant sultana bent on conquest is an icon, it probably means her agents are in (or very near) the city, and your campaign will have a flavor of international intrigue. If the decadent, demon-summoning ruler of a slaver kingdom is an icon, you’ll focus heavily on the criminal and occult underworld — particularly smuggling, drugs, slavery and black magic.

How many?

You might be wondering how many NPCs to elevate to icon status. Five? Thirteen? More? Less?

Again, let’s look at practicalities. Just because you have 13 icons in a setting doesn’t mean that all 13 are going to be active in your campaign. And an even smaller number will play a major role in your adventures through successful icon relationship rolls. But in my experience, knowing that there are other powers striving and clashing in the world gives a setting depth, and makes it more dynamic. Even if things are relatively quiet in your neck of the woods, a mighty necromancer’s army might be steadily marching on a distant trade city — where a siege could mean a hungry winter for the dwarves in the North.

Me, I like to go with 13. It’s traditional, you know?

 

 

4 Responses to “13th Sage: How to Create Meaningful Icons For a Setting”

  1. RM says:

    I actually have frequently given icon benefits in my 13th age game based on skills the player character has because of the connection to or similarity to the icon. For instance, if Archmage comes up, sometimes it is the character’s own wizard talents that let him do something extraordinary, or for Prince of Shadows, the party’s rogue might discover a long forgotten trap and activate it against their foes. Basically, it can be things that the player character himself can do, either because of a past connection with the icon or even just skills he has that are similar to skills the icon might have. “Prince of Shadows” coming up my game doesn’t always mean an agent of the Prince is important–it may just mean the concept of thievery is important.

    So actually, I think you very much could make a stationary, non-social dragon an icon. For one, the dragon described is something many people would want dead, so you easily have foes of the dragon to give you things if you’ve got a negative relationship with the dragon. For another, you could interpret rolls as “my dragon-hunting skills or quest are very important” instead of it the advantage having to come from a formal connection to the dragon.

    It can even work for positive relationships, honestly. If your character has a positive relationship with such an icon, maybe he wants to prevent anything from attacking it. So his relationship benefits come from that goal and the skills he has because of it, or what people know about him because of it. He has advantages against enemies of the icon–dragon hunters and the like, for instance. He can find magic items related to the dragon’s raids from the ancient past, or previous hunters, that sort of thing. Other dragons might respect him because he is protecting this one. The icon isn’t social, but the Player Character becomes quite well known and his goals and his own history give him power. He isn’t the icon himself but he gives himself the advantages.

    (To look at the likely source, the dwarves in The Hobbit gain some advantages /because they are hunting Smaug/. You could easily interpret those as coming from a Smaug negative relationship rather than a Laketown positive, which they’d be less likely to have.)

    So I don’t think the dragon icon mentioned has to be social, but it probably does have to be famous.

    I’m not saying you should absolutely have such an icon in your campaign, of course, but I think it is possible.

    • RM says:

      (Although I suppose they probably do have a conflicted Laketown one, so it could be either way with that example.)

  2. I had very similar thought processes when I started creating Icons for my home-brew setting, Tolrendor: (http://tolrendor-world.net/2014/02/22/icons-and-tolrendor/). I really like the framework you’ve outlined here!!

  3. Joshua says:

    I think this is a great outline for how to work with the icons.

    To add to the goals section, I find it’s good to connect icon goals in a spider’s web setup.

    Some of the things I’ve set up with the 13th age premade icons:

    The crusader and the Diabolist were once lovers. The diabolist spurned him to seduce the Emperor for her own chaotic goals. So now the Crusader is trying to take over hell to bring an army of demons against the empire, take back the diabolist, and kill her himself.

    The Archmage is dabbling in dark arts that are secretly being influenced by the Lich King. This is causing issues with the High Druid who sees this as unnatural.

    Meanwhile the Priestess as summoned the Orc Lord through a dream so that he can help defeat the Lich King. The Dwarf King is confused by the orcs moving so far south and believe no good can come of it.

    Just some food for thought.

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