My current project (ONE of my current projects, so many current projects) is the (provisionally-titled) Book of Ages, for 13th Age. It’s mostly a grab bag of “cool stuff from previous Ages” – monsters, magic, feats, legends, adventure seeds – but here’s one of the early sections, discussing persnickety world-building questions and assumptions.
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Twelve Ages have passed since the foundation of the Empire and the reign of the Wizard King… but what’s an Age? And how long is that exactly? These questions are of comparatively little importance in a regular 13th Age campaign compared to “what’s that scaly firebreathing monster-snake over there” and “how long is it, roughly, because if it’s a Huge monster we’re screwed”, but in a book all about Ages we must at least briefly define our terms.
What is an Age?
An Age is a period of history that, in retrospect, has a discernible arc or overriding influence. Ages are book-ended by catastrophes. So, the First Age was dominated by the founding of the Empire in the aftermath of the Wizard King’s defeat, and ended when the giants razed Axis. The Sixth Age’s defining influence was the spread of lycanthropy among the aristocracy; like other Ages, it began and ended in catastrophe.
That isn’t to say, of course, that there isn’t tumult and catastrophe at times other than the start and end of Ages. Every peril that threatens the Empire is hailed by doom-sayers as the turning of the 13th Age. You don’t know that the world is falling apart when you’re trying to survive in the middle of it.
Who Defines An Age?
The historians and chroniclers in the court of the Archmage in Horizon are responsible for declaring the beginning of a new Age. This usually happens retrospectively – “clearly”, they might say, “the defeat of the Sea Raiders a generation ago marked a great change in the affairs of the Empire, so we have decided that the 11th Age ended at the Battle of the Redwater and we are now in the first century of the 12th Age”. At times, ambitious Emperors have pressured the sages into prematurely declaring the start of a new Age, but such hubris is punished by history – and anyway, only sages, historians, dungeon-crawling adventurous archaeologists and long-lived elves really care that much about when precisely an Age begins.
How Long Is An Age?
It varies. Recent Ages are all a few hundred years long. Earlier Ages might have been much longer, for the further back you go in the history of the Dragon Empire, the more uncertain things become. (All those catastrophes play havoc with proper record-keeping, after all.) So, Ages last as long as the Gamemaster needs. If you like an absurdly ancient Empire, then maybe the first Age lasted ten thousand years. If you want something faster and more chaotic, then Ages might last scarcely a century, and some of the earlier Ages might be entirely fraudulent. (“Historians!”, shouts the barbarian king who’s just claimed the throne, “insert another Age, and relate to me tales from that era about how my ancestors ruled the Empire, and how I am therefore reclaiming my rightful inheritance from a usurper and now, as it might appear, a bloody-handed mass murderer.”)
Do Ages Mean Anything?
Now that’s an interesting question. How much mystical significance does an Age have? The catastrophe that ends an Age usually results in the death, diminishment or transformation of one or more Icons; it’s unheard-of for two Ages to have exactly the same roster of Icons.
Of course, that implies other questions, like: is an Icon simply a powerful or influential individual, or are they somehow an embodiment/reflection/wellspring of mystical power? Does the appearance of the Priestess in the 13th Age mean that divine magic will become more powerful? Does the loss of the Oracle mean that it’s now harder – or even impossible – to see the future? If an Age is defined by its Icons, then are there a limited number of Iconic “slots” available? If there are always 13 Icons, no more and no less, and the existence of an Icon has mystical significance, then the goal of every sinister conspiracy and cult might be to eliminate an existing Icon to elevate their own champion. If the Orc Lord dies in battle, and the Lizard Queen takes his place, then will orcs become weak and fearful, and lizard-folk become stronger and fiercer in their stead?
An interesting variant assumes that the number of an Age determines how many Iconic ‘slots’ there are. So, in the First Age there was only one Icon, two in the Second, three in the Third and so forth. The Great Gold Wyrm was the first Icon; in the Second Age, the dwarves defeat the giants and the Dwarf King ascends to Iconic status. In the third, the Four Dragons arrive, drawn by the wealth of the underground kingdom. In the fourth, the Elf Queen binds the Green, making the Four into the Three and marking her as an Icon…
Alternatively, Icons might be purely a measure of local praxis – the Emperor’s an icon in the Empire, but has no reach beyond it, and if you follow the Koru trail up north, then local potentates like the Frostjack, the Living Glacier or the Hobgoblin Chieftain take on Iconic roles. In that interpretation, a player could even take Icon-style relationships with these smaller-scale Icons that would only work when in that Icon’s zone of influence. There still might be a Grandmaster of Flowers in some hidden monastery where she trains monks, and she works as an Icon when you’re adventuring near that holy mountain, but she doesn’t have the Empire-wide reach of her forebears.
Another possibility is that some forms of magic might be possible in one Age, but not in others. There might be Ages when all arcane magic just stopped working for centuries, until the world turned again. There might be Ages when other forms of magical power (psionics, maybe) worked, but they stopped when the Age changed, leaving behind only a few impossible relics and the memories of wonder.
Some astoundingly potent rituals and spells might be restricted to once-per-Age, just as resurrection is once-per-lifetime, more or less.
Does Everyone Agree on the Ages?
Even if you assume that the turning of an Age is marked with completely obvious and unambiguous signs and portents, even if giant letters of fire appear in the sky saying ‘NOW TURN TO THE NEXT AGE’ when the time is at hand, some people are going to argue. The Elves might refuse to acknowledge that the 12th Age ever ended; historians might argue over whether Horizon was built in the 3rd or the 4th Age, or if it was actually built in the 18th and is moving backwards in time (because the Archmage, that’s why.) Not only will the ordering of the Ages vary from campaign to campaign, but there can be plenty of disagreement and ambiguity within a campaign too. After all, an Age is just the high-fantasy way of saying “once upon a time…”