Telling Stories with 13th Age Icons
Mark Morrison is one-half of Campaign Coins, who have a Kickstarter for official 13th Age Coins & Icon Tokens in May 2016. He has also written scenarios for Call of Cthulhu and Elric!
I’ve been helping my friend Andre Bishop run Campaign Coins since 2011, and it’s all Rob Heinsoo’s fault. Rob’s card game Three Dragon Ante stopped our Pathfinder campaign dead for two months because we got so hooked on gambling with fake coins (I used to call it nerd poker). In time I offered to help Andre run the business, and the rest is history and counterfeit gold.
I kept an eye on Rob’s designs after that, so after my 4E group finished Gardmore Abbey it was the perfect time for us to try 13th Age, as it promised the sweet spot between 4E’s ease of play and 3E’s flexibility, all streamlined into a beautiful and at times hilarious indie-DnD package.
The group was totally hooked, and it’s been our house campaign ever since.
The Dragon Empire is a great setting, but I have two loves: heroic fantasy and westerns. So, I used the new campaign as the opportunity to mashup my own sort-of original setting, inspired in large part by Joe Abercrombie’s dusty and bloody novel Red Country:
I’m running a Spaghetti Tolkien campaign.
It’s 1876, train tracks are crossing the United States, the Plains Wars are raging, and there are humans and elves and dwarves all armoured up and killing each other with swords. There are stagecoaches and dragons and dwarf prospectors and chain gangs and haunted mines, but no six-guns. In other words, the best of both worlds.
I love the icons, they’re my favourite part of 13th Age. They are Jungian and universal and heroic, and offer all the themes you need to build a self-sustaining story engine.
In my fantasy-western the Emperor is the President (I do a half-arsed impersonation of Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln). The Priestess is in Utah, the Dwarf King is building tracks from San Francisco, the Archmage is building them the other way from the East Coast, the Prince of Shadows is running the gangs of New York, the Diabolist is doing nefarious things out of New Orleans, and the Crusader With No Name turns up when he is least wanted, which is quite often the way my players make icon rolls.
Instead of the Lich King we have the Serpent King, a bloody Mesoamerican deity who the player characters have awakened from a pre-human time when the 13 icons were all reptilian. My living dungeons are serpent mounds and tunnels which criss-cross America. Last session the adventurers learned that the reptile icons are waking from centuries of hiberation, and one of the 12 human icons is now a reptoid. I seriously can’t wait until the players burst in and see [REDACTED] open wide and swallow a baby rat.
Icons fuel the campaign. When I sit down behind the GM screen the only thing I’m certain of is where the session will start, rarely where it will end. I try to let the icon rolls shape the story. It keeps me on my toes, and also keeps giving narrative surprises. I’m also a big believer in the subconscious storyteller, and so many times the elements we threw into the campaign at random last week are the sudden key to a huge plot revelation this week.
The Dwarven Tower coin description in 13th Age got me convinced that these would make great metal coins, and it was so easy working with Rob and Jay to get the license up and running. In my videogame days I worked with Drew Morrow, a fantastic concept artist at THQ, and he was the perfect man to get his head around the 3D planning required to make them sort and stack. They’re also ridiculously beautiful. I love using metal coins in RPGs, it’s so satisfying when the player physically hands you a stack of gold for a Potion of Healing. Plus, I can’t wait to go full circle and play Three Dragon Ante with them.
Falling in love with the icons also made me really pine for a set of beautiful icon tokens which could sit in front of the players. A bloke at GenCon gave me the idea; he carefully looked over all of our fantasy coins and trade bars and picked out 13 coins that could represent the icons. If he comes back to see us, I’ll gladly give him a proper set.
The icon tokens were easy to design, because Lee Moyer had already done the art on page 12 of the 13th Age core rulebook. “Let’s just make these!” I said to Rob. Drew designed them from there, and our 3D team got the sculpts just right. We put green transparent enamel on one side and red on the other, so that any token could be flipped over for a 5+ roll or a 6+ roll.
They have already made my game better: now that the players have a physical reminder, they have been coming up with top new ideas for their icon relationships. I’m excited to think that the tokens will help players all over the world tell great new stories. Preferably with slightly better Daniel Day Lewis impressions.
MARK’S HOUSE RULES FOR ICON RELATIONSHIPS
- Players can only put a maximum of 1 point into any icon
I found that when the players double up on their relationships, then that icon figures too much in the story. All 13 icons are important in my world, so I’ve asked the players to spread their allegiances and enmities. The story is richer, but we see a lot less of Clint Eastwood I mean the Crusader.
- If the player does not roll a 5 or a 6, but rolls Snake Eyes with two other dice, they get a random icon relationship
It’s always a bummer if you don’t get an icon, even though statistically 5 and 6 should deliver one result across three rolls. So, if the player can roll two ones on their three dice, I give them a random surprise icon. I use the icon d12 I got from the 13 True Ways Kickstarter, although any d12 can do. We’ve had some great surprise plot twists this way.
- If a player still gets nothing, they get a D20 reroll this session
Everyone deserves to shine, and the game is just better if the players hit rather than miss, so now I give a free D20 reroll as a consolation prize. Plus, it’s a way to use our D20 coins. Lynda Mills designed those for us, and in the campaign she plays a paladin who is going straight to hell. I can’t wait to see what happens when she gets there.
Check out the 13th Age Coins & Icon Tokens campaign on Kickstarter!